Along the Gulf shores of Texas and Louisiana there is a complex of deep, underground caverns. Inside each of these enormous caves – each of which is large enough to easily fit Chicago’s Willis Tower inside — the U.S. government keeps hundreds of millions of barrels of petroleum to safeguard the country against natural-disaster-induced and political-conflict-related supply disruptions.
Many countries have similar strategic reserves, but on the other side of the world, China maintains a different kind of stockpile: icy warehouses around the country are filled with frozen pork. The commodity is of such importance in China — which consumes more pork per capita than any other country after Vietnam — that the government set up a national reserve to protect the country from shortages and price volatility.
But the country’s pork industry is being devastated by a deadly, highly-contagious virus. Since officials began reporting cases last August, African Swine Fever (commonly known by its abbreviation ASF), has swept across the country. Outbreaks have hit every province and all five autonomous regions (like Tibet and Mongolia), and experts believe there are far more cases than the 129 outbreaks officially reported.
“There are many reports of cover-ups in China,” Brett Stuart, co-founder of analysis firm Global AgriTrends told TIME. He said a farm manager was reportedly jailed after reporting a case in Shandong province, suggesting authorities could be trying to obscure the reach of the problem.
The latest cases in China’s southern Hainan island — a waterway and more than 2,000 miles from the northeastern province of Liaoning where ASF was first reported — show how quickly the virus can spread. ASF, for which there is no cure or vaccine, can be passed between sick animals, or from objects like a farmer’s clothing and boots.
Consumption of infected meat — the resilient disease can live for months in pork products like sausage — is a major contributor to its spread in China, where many small famers feed their pigs household garbage, although the government has now placed restrictions on swill feeding. ASF is not known to be harmful to humans.
Experts say that the disease has moved more rapidly in Asia than in other regions where outbreaks have been found, like Europe.
“I have been very surprised about how fast ASF has spread in China,” Dr. Linda Dixon, an ASF researcher at the Pirbright Institute, a research institute dedicated to studying infectious disease in farm animals, told TIME.
Widespread culls have been enacted to fight the spread of ASF. Data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics show that pig numbers decreased to 375.3 million, a drop of 40 million, at the end of March from one year earlier, according to the Wall Street Journal. China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs believes the situation is worse, estimating that pigs have decreased 19% year-on-year, says the Journal.
“The impact on China’s pork industry has been catastrophic. Farms are empty across China. Farmers have been directed to wait up to [six] months before restocking,” says Stuart, of Global AgriTrends.
The decline in China’s pig stocks could seriously impact meat production at a time at a time when trade tensions are high. Chenjun Pan, Senior Analyst at Rabobank, told TIME that production could fall as much as 25-35% in 2019, and some experts believe China will be reliant on U.S. pork to keep its population fed.
China has imposed retaliatory tariffs of 50% on U.S. pork imports, which brings the total tariff level to 62% when factoring in the normal 12% rate applied to U.S. pork brought into the country. The USDA estimates that China will be the biggest source of demand for U.S. pork in 2019, and they expect China’s imports to rise 41% for the year.
“China’s need for pork will make it hard to ignore the U.S. It is logistically and physically impossible to find enough pork to fill China’s impeding pork gap,” says Stuart, of Global AgriTrends.
And the disease appears to be spreading. Vietnam reported its first outbreak in February, and Cambodia confirmed the virus’ arrival in March. In the last few weeks, more cases have been reported near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
Customs authorities worldwide are on alert. Tourists arriving in Taiwan were fined for bringing pork products into the country, and ASF was discovered in sausage confiscated at a Japanese airport. In March, U.S. customs officials seized a million pounds of Chinese pork on swine fever concerns.
According to Dixon, of the Pirbright Institute, it seems “likely” that ASF will spread further across Southeast Asia due to large pig populations living in small farms. Laos has already put a hold on the import of pigs and pork products from China. In early April, Thailand approved funding to prepare the country for a potential outbreak.
“Thailand is probably next,” warns Stuart.
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