WORDS Rachel Soon
With the approach of the 2020 Lunar New Year, Chinese families everywhere are gearing up for a time of feasting and reunion. For many, a key ingredient featured each year on the dinner table is none other than the humble bit (or generous slab) of pork. However, with news headlines highlighting an alarming new disease called African Swine Fever, and the government banning the import of pork products from numerous countries, one might ask: is our pork safe? Should we worry about eating it? Here are some facts to help clear up the issues.
What is African swine fever (ASF)?
ASF is a fast-spreading and usually fatal disease in wild and domestic pigs caused by the African swine fever virus. Depending on how severe the infection is and the type/ species of pig infected, ASF symptoms range from weight loss, intermittent fevers, respiratory issues, and skin ulcers (chronic/ subacute ASF) to high fever, loss of appetite, internal bleeding, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, and death within 6–20 days (acute ASF).1
With mortality rates ranging from 30% to 100%, ASF epidemics have devastated whole populations of domestic pigs across the world. The first known outbreak was described in Kenya in 1921 while the first European case was detected in Portugal in 1957.
Since then the virus has gradually spread to other European countries. Although the first cases in Asia only emerged in 2018, it has spread rapidly to more than 10% of pigs in China, Vietnam and Mongolia, with over 5 million culled to try and stop its advance.2
Sounds terrible! Can ASF hurt me?
The good news is: Not at all! Humans can’t catch ASF, and handling and eating pork from infected pigs has no effect on the human body. According to the World Health Organization, the ASF virus is non-zoonotic, meaning it can’t jump from animals to humans.3
But isn’t ASF the same as swine flu?
ASF is not the same as swine flu! Swine flu is a different disease with a different cause and different risks (see table below for a brief comparison).
African swine fever versus swine flu
|African swine fever1
|Caused by a unique virus family, Asfarviridae, with no similar “relatives” that affect humans.
|Caused by strains of influenza viruses (eg, H1N1, H3N2) very similar to strains that cause flu in humans and birds.
|Has not infected humans since discovery in 1921.
|Original pig-specific strains rarely infect humans, but can crossover with human/ bird strains to create human-infectious strains; involved in some human flu pandemics between 1918 and 2009.
|High death rate in animals (30%-100%).
|Low death rate in animals (1%-4%).
|Can be transmitted through pork products.
|Can’t be transmitted through pork products.
If it doesn’t affect us, why fuss about infected pork?
Because while the virus can’t infect us, it can hurt our local pigs if it becomes a resident of our country. Malaysia’s farms and forests are currently ASF-virus-free places, but like many countries that used to be free of the virus, that could easily change.
The ASF virus can infect wild pigs and blood-feeding insects (eg, ticks, mosquitoes) without causing any symptoms, making them act as disease reservoirs. This means that once the virus has spread among a country’s wildlife, it can be difficult to drive it out.1
The ASF virus is also a tough cookie. Not only can it remain infectious for up to 1,000 days in frozen raw meat and between 30 to 400 days in dry-cured pork, it can survive heat up to 56°C for over an hour.5
Many dried, frozen and cured pork products are not prepared at extreme enough temperatures to destroy every trace of the virus from the meat; ASF virus traces have been found in imported suckling pigs, frozen pork dumplings, frozen meatballs, and canned luncheon meat.6-8
Migrating wild pigs can carry the ASF virus across borders.
But surely it’s okay if I’m eating it and not the pigs?
Waste human food—kitchen scraps, uneaten leftovers—is one route the virus has been known to spread, as some small farms use it in pig feed, while in some places wild animals have access to the waste we throw out. While you may not personally live anywhere near any pigs, wild or domestic, a blanket ban on potentially infected pork products is the safest measure that can be taken, as there’s no telling where in the country a single can of infected meat can end up.5
What should I do about all this?
As of mid-December 2019, the Malaysian government has placed an embargo on pork products from China, Poland, Belgium, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Laos, and South Korea. Indonesia was recently added given with recent reports of over 30,000 pigs affected in North Sumatra.9,10,11 However, despite this, it’s possible to still find banned pork in local stores and restaurants.12
As responsible consumers, what we can do is look out for and avoid buying or consuming pork products from embargoed countries. Check the labels of pork products for their country of origin and ask retailers where the pork you’re buying comes from. Avoid bringing back pork products from affected countries on your holidays.
On the plus side, Malaysian pork is still very much ASF-free, according to the Department of Veterinary Services, so feel free to enjoy local pork this Chinese New Year with peace of mind!
Found some questionable pork products? You can report them to the Department of Veterinary Services (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Veterinar) via phone at 03-8870 2000 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.