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To ban or not to ban – that is the question
  1. Josh Loeb

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When it comes to the effects of African swine fever (ASF), China gets much attention. That is understandable. China is home to around half the world’s pigs, and the situation in China is grave.

However, what is sometimes forgotten, at least by those not directly involved in work concerning transboundary animal diseases, is that ASF is also present on the UK’s very own doorstep.

Within the EU, the disease has been endemic on the island of Sardinia for several decades, and in recent years it has been spreading in mainland sections of the EU too, following outbreaks in the neighbouring Caucasus region in 2007.

There have been recurrent outbreaks in eastern EU member states since 2014 – suggesting possible gaps in biosecurity at the bloc’s easternmost fringe. Furthermore, last year the virus appeared (worryingly) to have ‘jumped’ within the EU when it was detected in wild boar in Belgium – around 1000 miles from the affected areas of Poland and Romania.

If the European Commission’s ‘regionalisation’ strategy for tackling ASF was intended to halt the disease’s spread, it has failed.

That’s not to say the situation in the EU is anywhere near as grave as in China, and there are important differences in that the problem in Europe is mostly infected wild boar, not big commercial farms. Still, it is significant that several EU member states themselves appear to have limited faith in the commission’s approach. This year, Denmark finished work on a fence along its border with Germany, designed to protect against incursions by ASF-infected boar. Meanwhile, the French army is assisting in the shooting of boar that wander in from Belgium.

These decisions by the national governments of two EU member states amount to a tacit suggestion that the EU’s approach may be insufficiently robust.

Here in the UK, there has been growing disquiet about the prospect that the disease could enter via infected pig meat brought in from fellow EU member states (see pp 750-751). Given the ease with which such food (including meat from wild boar hunted in the forests of eastern Europe) can, and does, move across national borders in Europe, it’s fair to ask whether tighter controls are needed to protect British pigs.

Precisely such a question has been asked by the National Pig Association, which is sympathetic towards calls to ban imports of pig products from all ASF-affected countries – including EU ones. However, for the time being it is a theoretical question, because only the European Commission can legally make decisions about stopping any movements of goods within the EU (indeed, the commission has done so in the case of pig meat exports from Sardinia – which it banned – and Poland and Romania, where there are partial bans, with some loopholes, concerning only certain regions).

Blocking imports of pig meat from whole EU countries is contentious

Trade bans can be political, and the notion of blocking imports of pig meat from whole EU countries is contentious to say the least. Inevitably, Brexit springs to mind.

Defra can put up posters asking people nicely not to bring in homemade salami produced using meat from privately butchered Romanian backyard pigs or wild boar, but what more can it do pre-Brexit? A ham sandwich carried into Heathrow by a traveller from China is a different matter – that can simply be seized.

This is because there is one EU-wide system and a separate set of rules for ‘third countries’.

You could look at this in two ways. First, as an example of the UK being hamstrung when it comes to making its own choices about trade.

On the other hand, if the worst were to happen and, for example, a Norfolk pig farm were to be hit by an outbreak of ASF, other such farms in other regions of the UK could not be punished by fellow EU countries under the EU’s commonly held rules.

That could be seen as an example of how EU membership can shield the UK from the economic impact of an infectious animal disease outbreak.

Either way, politics should not get in the way of optimum disease management.

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