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The Big Picture
Defra taking action to prevent African swine fever in the UK


Josh Loeb outlines new government measures to tackle the disease that is steadily making its way through Europe

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A public information blitz was launched this week at entry points into the UK, aimed at keeping African swine fever (ASF) out of the country.

Following concern from some pig industry groups that Defra was being too slow off the mark (VR, 22 June 2019, vol 184, p 750), it has finally unveiled its much anticipated campaign, geared towards warning international passengers about the risk of ASF.

A mix of posters and graphics for TV screens now greet those arriving at nearly 40 UK airports, as well as ports and the Eurostar terminal. They warn those from abroad, and Brits returning from holiday, not to bring pig meat into the country.

Passengers arriving from Asian ASF-affected countries are specifically warned to declare food items at customs to avoid prosecution and a fine. The ASF virus can survive in cooked and even frozen meat and can be transmitted to pigs via infected food.

The disease, which poses no threat to human health but is fatal for pigs, has already spread widely across Asia and has also affected some European countries.

Defra said Border Force officers will search freight, passengers and luggage and will seize and destroy illegally imported meat products.

The move came as Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief vet, admitted that ASF is one of the things that keeps her awake at night. If the disease got into the UK, the damage could be akin to that caused by the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, she said.

‘It would be devastating for the industry because there’s no cure for the disease,’ Middlemiss said during a briefing for journalists at Defra’s offices this week. ‘There’s no treatment, and there’s no vaccine. You have to control it by euthanasing the infected pigs and the pigs that are believed to be infected.’

She also said the threat posed by the disease ‘is not going to go away quickly’.

‘It’s not about just this summer, it’s about ongoing management,’ Middlemiss said. ‘It’s a global risk because it’s impacting pig prices, pig movements, and so on.

‘The biosecurity approach, and the messaging, and everything we’re talking about now, we’d like to see people embedding that as an approach on an ongoing basis – it’s not just for this summer, this holiday or this ham sandwich.’

In recent weeks, Vet Record has covered ASF extensively, including in a special report about the international system for monitoring the spread of the disease (VR, 27 July 2019, vol 185, pp 94–95).

Middlemiss praised this journal’s coverage, saying: ‘In reaching the wider profession – the whole of the veterinary profession…[including] vets who might be treating pet pigs, I really genuinely appreciate your [Vet Record’s] contribution. It’s really valuable.’

Last month it was announced that ASF virus DNA had been detected in samples of illegally imported pork products seized at entry points into Northern Ireland.

Lord Gardiner, minister for biosecurity, said: ‘While there has never been an outbreak of African swine fever in the UK, we are not complacent and already have robust measures in place to protect against animal disease outbreaks.’ •

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