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Farmers fear government 'paralysis' could open door to deadly pig disease

19 September, 2019 - 16:13
Norfolk pig farmer Rob Mutimer of Swannington Farm to Fork. Picture: Denise Bradley

Norfolk pig farmer Rob Mutimer of Swannington Farm to Fork. Picture: Denise Bradley

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Pig farmers are "desperately concerned" the government is not working hard enough to prevent a catastrophic disease outbreak - after a minister said African Swine Fever is expected to reach our shores within a year.

The deadly virus has already wiped out around a third of China's pig population, and has spread across Asia and into Europe.

Although the disease poses no threat to human health it is fatal for pigs, and could potentially devastate the industry in East Anglia, where a significant proportion of the UK pig herd is kept.

In a letter to the National Pig Association, farming minister George Eustice said the UK risk level is currently set at "medium", which Defra defines as meaning an infected product is likely to be brought into the UK within a year.

Mr Eustice said Defra is actively working with UK Border Force to improve intelligence sharing and detect and seize illegal imports and to raise awareness amongst travellers about the risks of bringing in potentially-infected meat and animal products.

Yet since an announcement in July that African Swine Fever posters and messaging was being stepped up at airports and ports, the NPA says it has seen "precious little evidence that the policies are being implemented with any rigour".

Norfolk pig farmer Rob Mutimer is managing director of Swannington Farm to Fork near Reepham, and also vice chairman of the NPA.

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He said: "We are desperately concerned that George Eustice was writing about this disease being on these shores within 12 months, and saying we should be taking biosecurity more seriously on our farms. But there is still no effective barriers at ports and airports, no sniffer dogs and bag searches and even the posters we were promised are not there.

"There is no information about the dangers of this disease, and Mr Eustice is washing his hands of it. Really, how hard is it to put posters up explaining the dangers?

"When the basics are not being done, it just indicates the paralysis in government at the moment. It is a very sad state of affairs."

READ MORE: How a careless tourist's pork pie could devastate East Anglia's pig farms

The government estimates African Swine Fever could cost the country £90m - which the NPA says is a "gross underestimation" as it does not take into account the loss of export markets, currently worth £470m a year.

NPA chairman Richard Lister added: "If we are going keep this disease out, everyone needs to take responsibility - which is why we need Defra and UK Border Force to take this seriously. It's our job to stop the virus getting into pigs - but it's the government's job to keep it out of the country."

Government officials said although the "medium" risk level means an infected product is likely to reach the UK within a year, it does not mean an outbreak is likely within the same period, and that the low risk of exposure to the UK pig population is dependent on maintaining a high level of biosecurity on individual premises.

A Defra spokesman said: "The risk of an African Swine Fever disease outbreak in the UK's pig population is low. But we know that with a growing number of cases on the continent, the instance of an infected product being brought into the UK is likely within a year.

"This is why we are taking a robust approach to stop the disease from impacting our pig farms and are working closely with UK Border Force to detect and seize illegal imports, as well as raising awareness amongst travellers about the risks of bringing in potentially infected animal products."

- For more information on how to prevent an African Swine Fever outbreak, see the GOV.UK website.

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