Macau Matters | Troubles with Pork

Richard Whitfield

I am a bit surprised that I have not heard about rising pork prices in Macau. But, I loathe all kinds of shopping, including for food, and we have not been eating much pork at home in recent times. I am surprised because an African Swine Fever epidemic seems to be decimating the Chinese pig herd.

Up until recently, more than half of the global pig herd lived in China – about 500 million animals. The next biggest herd is in the European Union, with about 150 million animals. The first officially reported case of African Swine Fever in China was in August 2018 and, again officially, about 1.3 million animals have been culled till now. However, unofficial sources estimate that over 150 million pigs in China have been infected and that several million have already died, or been culled to prevent the disease spreading.

African Swine Fever is harmless to people but fatal to pigs in 90+% of infections. It spreads by contact and ticks and by eating contaminated feed and usually kills the infected animal within 1 week. There is no vaccine so the only way to prevent contagion is by quarantine and culling.

Chinese pig farmers are eligible for compensation but it seems that many do not trust that they will actually receive the payments. These are made via local governments which often do not have the money to spare. This unfortunate situation means that outbreaks are under-reported and affected farmers and local officials conspire to sell infected animals.

The problem is further exacerbated because most pigs in China are owned by small farmers owning fewer than 500 animals. These small farmers cannot afford losses and do not know how to prevent infections (mostly good sanitation and feed practices).

It will likely take considerable time to develop a vaccine, and in the mean time millions and millions of Chinese pigs will die or have to be destroyed. It will also bankrupt many smaller farmers. It will then take several years to rebuild the Chinese pig herd. Looking for a silver lining, hopefully, larger scale more technically sophisticated pig farming will replace much of the existing industry so that the chances of similar problems in the future will be much reduced.

The Chinese government itself does not have the best record in managing bio-security problems for people or animals. It seems to be secretive and there have been past cover-ups and incompetence. It looks like the relevant regulators need to do more and act more proactively to resolve this major problem, and explain more about what is being done to reassure the general public.

In the last few months Hong Kong has stopped pig shipments from China twice, and culled 6,000 animals during the first shutdown and expects to cull about 4,100 animals in the most recent case.

The Macau government says that there have been no cases in Macau but I question how closely they are monitoring the situation and the stringency of the local inspections of live pigs and pig meat imported from China.

Given the severity of the situation and the problems that have been experienced in Hong Kong, I feel that the Macau government should be much more open and transparent and explain in much more detail exactly what they are doing to make sure that African Swine Fever infected pork does not get into Macau. We have a very big tourism industry here and the last thing we need is food health scares.

Categories Opinion