African swine fever may not have to make it to the mainland of the U.S. to slam the U.S. pork industry.

If ASF makes the short hop from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, countries around the globe will be entitled by international standards to ban all U.S. pork, according to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and U.S. industry specialists.

That’s because the World Organization for Animal Health, which goes by the French acronym OIE and evaluates the livestock disease status for countries, “provides no designation between a country and its territories when determining ASF status,” a spokesman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service told Agri-Pulse.

And that means that if the USDA were to report the finding of ASF in Puerto Rico, the U.S. would officially be considered “positive” even though the territory “is an island a thousand miles away," says Patrick Webb, director of swine health programs and acting chief veterinarian for the National Pork Board.

The USDA's  Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory confirmed finding ASF in the Dominican Republic on July 28. 

Whether a country such as China or Mexico would actually ban U.S. pork is unclear, but the mere possibility is sending chills through the pork industry in the U.S. The U.S. exported about $6 billion worth of pork in 2020, up from $5.2 billion, according to data compiled by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

“You would have some trading partners who would be reasonable about that and realize (Puerto Rico) is truly distinct and separate territory from the mainland U.S.,” Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian of the National Pork Producers Council, said about the ramifications of an ASF discovery in Puerto Rico.

But she noted that other countries might react much differently. “You would have some trading partners that could potentially consider the whole U.S. positive,” she said.

USDA is arguing to foreign governments that banning U.S. pork in the event the virus is found in Puerto Rico would be unjustified, but concern is high that there are countries looking for any excuse to cut off imports in order to protect domestic producers, one government official said.

“You could have trading partners use a positive case as a reason to stop trade,” said Webb. “The trick is we don’t know if they would do that.”

Gregg Doud, former chief agricultural negotiator at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and now chief economist for Aimpoint Research, is not optimistic.

“If we would get a case of ASF in Puerto Rico, it shuts everything down,” he said this week at a gathering of the American Feed Industry Association. “And when I say everything, I’m even talking about … pork in pet food – it shuts that down.”

A worst-case scenario could involve Mexico, Doud said. “One of the things I learned in my old job was if we ever shut down U.S. pork exports to Mexico, our processing would have to shut down in about three days … because we’d have so much meat that our freezers would be full and we’d have no place to put it.”

U.S. pork producers and USDA officials are hoping it never comes to that, but the possibility is spurring efforts at USDA to focus on regionalization deals to try to assure that foreign countries do not impose blanket pork bans on the entire U.S. because of a localized outbreak of the virus.

“In the event of a detection, we would quickly work with trading partners to regionalize Puerto Rico from the U.S. mainland and to show mitigations that are in place to prevent disease spread from Puerto Rico to the mainland,” the APHIS spokesman said. 

But to prevent that from happening in the first place, USDA and Customs and Border Protection officers are increasing efforts to keep the virus from jumping from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, according to U.S. government and industry officials.

Inspectors with dogs are checking for pork being carried by passengers on ferries between the two countries, and all boat traffic is under tighter scrutiny, says Wagstrom.

“If we look at the far eastern edge of the Dominican Republic to the western edge of Puerto Rico, it’s an 83-mile boat ride,” said Cassandra Jones, undergraduate research coordinator in the Department of Animal Sciences & Industry at Kansas State University. “Pigs cannot swim that far … however we know that this is an area that’s rife with significant travel of small vessels, small planes and there’s a very significant risk here.”

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APHIS says it is “implementing an enhanced outreach and communication program in Puerto Rico including its ports to prevent introductions of foreign pork and pork products,” the APHIS spokesman said. “APHIS is also implementing a public campaign in Puerto Rico to make producers aware of ASF concerns and provide public education, including use of social media.”

The feeding of waste to pigs is a particular concern. The practice is increasingly rare in the U.S. and strictly regulated, but it’s more common elsewhere and far less scrutinized.

But APHIS is also looking for ASF in Puerto Rico, monitoring for any signs that the virus is there. It’s very tough job because of the large feral swine population there, Wagstrom said. When Hurricane Maria ripped through the country in 2017, many of the pigs kept as pets became homeless. As a result, the feral pig population rose significantly, and trash has become a food source for the wild animals.

APHIS has recently accelerated its wild pig depopulation efforts in Puerto Rico and all of those pigs are being tested for ASF.

“APHIS has initiated a number of proactive mitigation and prevention efforts in Puerto Rico to safeguard against ASF,” the agency said and added that it is “already working to enhance surveillance in Puerto Rico including feral swine sampling … APHIS was already sampling swine for classical swine fever and has added testing for ASF to that program.”

It’s also important to note that APHIS has been successfully working to keep classical swine fever – a similar virus that, unlike ASF, can be vaccinated against – does not jump from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, according to U.S. industry and government officials.

APHIS stressed that it has “mitigations in place that have prevented classical swine fever from traveling from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico.  These mitigations have successfully worked for decades, and are the same mitigations that will be used to prevent the spread of African swine fever to Puerto Rico. We are increasing our vigilance of these existing measures, as well as adding more disease surveillance and testing in Puerto Rico.”