African Swine Fever: Discussion

I welcome representatives from the Irish Farmers' Association national pig and pigmeat committee: Mr. Robert Malone and Mr. Shane McAuliffe, and Mr. Roy Gaille, chairman, who will join us remotely; also joining us remotely is Mr. David Ronan, a pig and dairy farmer.

Before we begin, I wish to give an important notice in regard to parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter to only qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given. They should respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Witnesses participating in the committee meeting from a location outside the parliamentary precincts should note that the constitutional protection afforded to those participating within the parliamentary precincts does not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given as to whether, or the extent to which, this participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.

We have received the witnesses' opening statements, which have been circulated to members. This issue has not got enough media attention and public knowledge is not up to standard. It was requested that we bring the witnesses before the committee to get a briefing on the dangers this presents to the industry. I invite Mr. Ronan to make his opening statement.

Mr. David Ronan

I thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to make this presentation on the pig disease threat from African swine fever, which has the potential to cause devastation to Ireland's third largest agricultural sector. I am a third generation pig farmer based in Tipperary. We have been supplying Irish pig meat for mored than 50 years and employ more than 60 people. In the past few years, the biggest threat to our business has been the potential for an outbreak of a serious disease and the sourcing of suitable employees for the farming sector.

With regard to the African swine fever issue, I will introduce my colleagues shortly and they will expand on this issue. By way of background, I wish initially to outline the reasons I have come before the committee today. The issue of African swine fever is of a serious nature for the pig farming community and has been a huge concern to me for a number of years. I have been in contact with my local Tipperary Deputies to try to get this issue elevated and to highlight the seriousness of the problem to this country. This disease would have far-reaching consequences if it arrives here. One need only note the collapse of the Chinese market when they had an outbreak.

Furthermore, I would like to see an all-island approach to protect ourselves from African swine fever. The last two diseases that reached the Republic of Ireland came through Northern Ireland, namely, blue ear disease and post-weaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome, or PMWS. Failure to implement a system such as that of Australia, which has stringent border controls, will be detrimental to the industry. Australia has been able to keep out disease for two to three decades, and not only African swine fever, but also PMWS and blue ear disease, which have severe consequences for the pig industry.

I believe the best way forward is for the Ministers for Agriculture, both North and South, to collaborate on an all-Ireland approach to safeguard our health status. My biggest fear currently is that African swine fever has already managed to travel from Asia, through eastern Europe, and has now arrived in Germany and Belgium. It is only a matter of time before the borders here are breached. If we do not act now, the consequences for the agriculture sector will be catostrophic.

I will now introduce the order of speakers: first, Shane McAuliffe, pig farmer in County Kerry and EU pig ambassador 2019; Roy Gallie, chairman of the IFA pig committee; and Robert Malone, secretary of the IFA pig committee. I thank members for their time.

As Mr. Ronan said, it is in Germany and Belgium. Is it in the commercial herds? Where is it? What are the precautions we need to take here to keep out this disease? If the gentlemen could focus on that for us, we would appreciate it.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

African swine fever is a viral disease of pigs. It is causing up to 100% mortality. It was first found, as the name suggests, in Africa, in Kenya in the early 1920s, with the first transcontinental spread was into Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. It was eradicated in the Iberian Peninsula in the 1970s and 1980s. It has remained endemic in Sardinia. The most significant transcontinental spread was in 2007 when it went from Africa to Georgia. From then, it spread up through the Caucuses, up through Russia and then into eastern Europe. That led to the most significant disease outbreak, which was China in 2018.

China can be described as a global pork powerhouse. Half of the world's pigs are in China. In the past two years, they have culled hundreds of millions of pigs, affecting millions of Chinese farmers. The equivalent of the entire European, Canadian and North American breeding herd of pigs has been wiped out with African swine fever in China.

Wild boar are a serious issue. They have spread it throughout eastern Europe - through the Baltic states, Poland and now, most recently, into Germany. The recent outbreak in Germany, while confined only to wild boar, has seen the German price collapse. As an exporting nation ourselves, if African swine fever came here our industry would collapse overnight.

Why has the price collapsed?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

Because the third markets, for example, China, which, as I said, is a global pork powerhouse-----

But it is not in commercial herds. It is only in wild boar.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

The Chairman is correct but, under the World Organisation for Animal Health, OIE, rules, if African swine fever is found in a wild boar one's country is deemed positive for African swine fever. China closed the market to German pigmeat. Bearing in mind that Germany is the third largest exporter of pigmeat to China, it has completely lost that market. They have lost other south-east Asian markets - Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. Of course, that has meant German pigmeat has been dumped on the European market and that has brought down prices for the rest of us.

What precautions has Germany taken to stop African swine fever spreading into its commercial herds?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

The problem with Germany is the wild boar. We are very lucky we have not got any here. Wild boar are very destructive and they are spreading it all over Europe, as I mentioned.

Of course, on commercial pig farms we have very high biosecurity. We take a lot of measures to prevent the spread of disease into farms. Biosecurity is a big focus here in Ireland.

I am sorry for cutting across Mr. McAuliffe. The understanding of this is poor in this country. It is in the wild herd in Germany. What are they doing to keep it out of their commercial herd? If it does not get into their commercial herd, surely it cannot transfer to this country? We will not have any contact with their wild boar. If they can keep it confined to the wild species, where is the threat to our herd?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

The virus survives in infected pigmeat. In terms of wild boar, we would be concerned that hunters who are going to Europe and coming back to Ireland would have the virus on their clothing, on knives, etc.

Another concern of ours is pigmeat coming to Ireland in passengers' suitcases via the airport. I wrote a paper two years ago with the Royal Veterinary College of London and my main finding was that at the time there were 28 routes out of Dublin Airport to destinations where African swine fever was present. We do not know if passengers bring in pigmeat in their hand baggage. They are not checked. It is only for the hold baggage that the National Disease Control Centre in Dublin Airport has a sniffer dog, Josie, which is looking for pigmeat or any kind of meat in passengers' luggage but eastern Europeans, with the low-cost airlines, very much carry it in their hand baggage. The worry is that infected pigmeat might be brought into Ireland, that it would be discarded inappropriately and that it would end up in the food chain. Someone feeding discarded infected pigmeat to a pig would lead to African swine fever coming here. It is as simple as that. Of course, that is how foot and mouth disease spread in 2001.

Is Mr. McAuliffe saying that it could be on the raw meat of a pig that comes from Germany to here?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

The commercial meat is fine because African swine fever is not in any commercial herd in Germany.

Does it travel in the meat?.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

Yes. The virus is inactivated if it is kept at 60°C for an hour or so. It can survive in salted and cured fresh-frozen pork.

Can I ask a few questions?

Yes, of course.

First, I thank the IFA for its submission. Going by the submission, Mr. McAuliffe seems to be referring to the 1,641 other farmers. They state there are 265 commercial farms. There are a total of 1,641 active herds. What is the IFA saying to them? Is it saying they should not have their pigs outside? Is it saying they should not be farming pigs at present? Will Mr. McAuliffe give me his view on that? Is there any danger in semen or is semen imported for pigs? I presume the IFA has looked for a complete ban on all live pigs coming in from any other country to shut down shop in this country.

In China, as I saw only the other day, interestingly, there is a guy who seems to have built a pig farm that is like a multistorey carpark.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

Yes.

I do not know what percentage of China he is able to cover but it looks impressive. I understand that some countries, such as Spain, were 15 years trying to get rid of swine flu and they were not able to do so. What have these guys in China done so that they are able to build this massive multistorey pig farm and these pigs do not have the swine flu?

The IFA seems to be saying that the flood of German pork, as a result of being banned from export to China even though the disease is not in its herd, is crippling the sector in Europe. I understood it was a boom time for the pig men. They struggled for many years. It is a long way from, when we were young, having a farrowing pen, a litter of bonhams and a sow. We had this years ago. Are we exporting a lot of pigmeat to China? When one considers the likes of these guys with their multistorey pig farm, is that market dropping?

Will Mr. McAuliffe give me his views on the ordinary pig farmer, for example, the organic farmer? Long ago, they used to ring the pig but I think that is illegal now. One could put rings in their noses and let them out in the fields. That does not happen now.

Does African swine fever travel? Is there a danger that a bird can bring it from the boar in Germany to a pig here, if the pigs are outside?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

I thank the Deputy for the questions. First of all, I stress it is not a flu. It is African swine fever virus. It is not a public health threat. It is not a risk to human health of any kind.

Starting with the small holders and backyard pig producers, we commend the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's National Disease Control Centre which has done fantastic work in reaching small holders in Ireland but our worry is that there are unregistered pigs we do not know about. In the case of any notifiable disease outbreak, not necessarily African swine fever, if there was such an outbreak, the Department would not know of these pigs in the surveillance zones and in the control zones. This is an ongoing threat. We found it very difficult to pinpoint how the Department finds out about people who have unregistered pigs. Even for a pet pig, you must have a pig herd number. Many people do not understand that. Much work needs to be done to get this information out to people with backyard and pet pigs.

Deputy Fitzmaurice mentioned the multistorey pig farm in China, an image of which has gone viral in the past week. I think there are 80,000 sows on that farm, which is half the size of our entire herd here in Ireland. What we are seeing now in China is what we saw about ten years ago in Russia. When the disease spread through Russia it affected backyard pig producers who had very poor biosecurity. They were compensated by the Government and massive mega-farms were built in Russia in their place. Again, we are seeing that now in China. The backyard pig producers are the ones-----

Where are the farmers getting the bonhams or the sows? If the farms were infected, where are all these pigs coming from?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

In the case of Russia, a very well-known Irish company, Hermitage, was exporting gilts to Russia for quite some time. The Danes are currently exporting quite a lot of gilts to China. As we have seen happen in Russia, China is now is building these mega-farms and we expect that by the end of 2021 China should be at about 80% of what it was at before the 2018 outbreak.

Some 850,000 gilts are heading off that way from Denmark. The IFA has talked about flooding the market in Europe. Are those pigs not gone out of the market in Europe now?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

There are specific herds that are solely breeding and exporting females for those markets. The Chinese Government has invested €26 billion in the last two years to get China back up to where it was. It is spending a colossal amount there and is really working hard to get the country back up and running.

Is there a vaccination for the disease or is culling the only option?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

There is no vaccine, and the disease has a 100% mortality rate so those countries had to cull all the animals that became infected or were impacted by the virus.

Where did they get fresh stock that were healthy?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

Yes, from the Danes and many other countries which were exporting live pigs as breeding stock.

The pigs would be quarantined when they come in.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

Exactly.

Maybe I am picking this up wrong, but what I cannot fathom is that, if that many pigs are going out there to become sows and breed, there has to be a vacuum somewhere, be it in breeding pigs in Europe or in killing pigs. That market was not there before, until the other pigs died.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

Yes, but there are also clean Chinese herds that have been breeding for the local market. They would be a large percentage of that.

What about the semen? Is there any danger there?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

No. Semen is okay because we have Irish boar studs here and any live breeding gilts or breeding boars are kept in quarantine when they arrive here.

Have we stopped bringing in pigs completely?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

No, we can still bring in pigs.

Is that not a risk?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

No it is not, because they are kept in quarantine. There is testing and surveillance before they leave their country in Europe and again when they get here. That is overseen by the National Pig Health Council.

Mr. Robert Malone

We have a strict protocol for importing live pigs. Most of the ones that come in are breeding pigs with high genetic merit. They are quarantined and tested on both sides, before they leave the country of export and when imported into Ireland. That is the key point. The risk is not in the commercial production herd. China's production system was based on farmers with 100 pigs, like Ireland 50 years ago, and it spread through those farms. The biosecurity was not there and now China is moving towards big, intensive and biosecure units. We have a good production system on our 265 commercial farms, where biosecuirty is highly maintained, so that is not the risk. The risk is in our backyard flocks. We have 1,600 registered flocks and there is probably the same again not registered. That is where we need to get out with the Department, to make sure they are registered and make sure those farmers know it is illegal to feed swill waste to those pigs. That is the risk. If someone has two pigs on his or her back lawn and one pig gets African swine fever, the whole industry suffers. We would get shut out of Asian markets like China straight away. Even with the recovery that will happen in the Chinese market, it is still the biggest importer of pork in the world and it will still be a very important importer, especially for cuts that we might not consume here. Its delicacy is not hams or fillets but parts of the pig we do not eat.

Last year, we exported €950 million worth of pig meat. Some 25% of that went to China and that was all cuts that might have been rendered if we did not have China to take them. Similarly, Chinese people do not eat the same cuts of beef we eat. It is putting value back into the animal, the pig or whatever we export, because we would have to almost pay to get rid of those cuts if we did not have those markets. It is vital to keep them. One of the main processors told me recently that if it did not have China, 20 cent would be gone off the price of the pigs in the morning. At the start of 2020, Teagasc predicted a price for the year of around €2 a kilogram, and rightly so. That is a great price and everything would have been perfect with that. We are now down to €1.50 or just a little above it, which is just breaking even. Pig meat production is a volatile market; it goes up and down. The rest of Europe is down below €1.30 now because of the German impact and being restricted from markets.

It is very important to keep African swine fever out and we have an opportunity as an island to do that. The crux of today's meeting is two asks. First, we need an all-Ireland approach with our counterparts in the North. We are an island so we should be able to keep this out. The high risk of wild boar is not present in Ireland. This disease is going to be brought in by unassuming travellers. Second, we need to inform the public about this. Travel has been restricted due to Covid but it is going to come back eventually and we need to inform people. I will bring in our pig chairman, Mr. Roy Gallie, who is present online. He is a pig farmer in my county of Kildare.

Senator Daly has a few questions. I will let him in and then we can bring Mr. Gaille in.

Some of what I was going to ask about has been covered already. The Chairman himself mentioned a vaccine. In the current climate we all consider ourselves epidemiology experts. I am intrigued because Mr. McAuliffe said this disease has been in existence since the 1920s. Is there any progress as regards a vaccine or was there ever a move towards one? Would one be feasible or would that be part of the solution to keeping the disease out of the country? He also mentioned lads going out hunting and bringing back the bit of meat in their bag illegally.

A few years ago, Mr. McAuliffe highlighted that the contents of a full Irish breakfast in a well-known chain here might not be not of Irish origin. I picked up on that point and raised in the Seanad. Is there any danger that possibly undesirable but officially imported pork, hams or rashers could be opening the gate to the disease?

I ask the witnesses to elaborate a little, for my own information as much as anything, on how the disease affects the pigs. Will it eventually kill them if they are not eliminated or terminated to avoid the spread?

It has already been said but it is important to reiterate that there is not a human issue here. Most definitively, it is the life of the pig we are talking about. Even if something does get through the net, there are no human consequences. It is vitally important that we get that message out there. This meeting should be solution-driven. We do not want to start scaremongering. We cannot reiterate that point half enough for the market and especially given the time of year that is in it because there is a lot of scaremongering at the moment. While Christmas is not going to be traditional, there is talk of Avian flu in turkeys and the last thing we want is a message going out about African swine fever in the ham portion of the traditional Christmas meal.

Mr. Roy Gallie

I am glad to join the meeting. I will concentrate on the two areas in which we are looking to act. That is what is most important. This has never been more prudent than it is at the moment, with the different Covid figures in the two halves of our country. We now need a comprehensive all-island agreement on animal disease, and to govern the movement of livestock and other potential threats on this island with statutory powers. Before travel hopefully opens up next year, we need a serious and all-encompassing public awareness campaign focused on the movements of people and products into this country, North and South combined.

To deal with the Senator's worries about the ham on the Christmas table, he can rest quite easy on this one because there is no threat to humans from this disease. It is an entirely pig-related disease.

The disease is fatal in pigs and as of yet there is no vaccine. I imagine if there was one, China would have found it, because that country's pig industry has been absolutely decimated. Some 300 million pigs have been killed in China. That is a colossal amount. I will stop there and take any further questions.

To clarify, I do not have that worry. I was making exactly the opposite point. I want to get the message out that there is no worry about Christmas ham. I do not want the conversation to worry other people.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

We have one concern about the communication of the science. People are confusing African swine fever with swine flu, which conveys lots of negative images of the pandemic several years ago. African swine fever only affects pigs. The Senator asked about the clinical science. As the name suggests, pigs will get a high fever, become lethargic and go off their feed. There is a reddening of the ears and 100% mortality.

The IFA highlighted the question of the full Irish breakfast a couple of years ago.

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

In the event of an outbreak anywhere in Europe, control and surveillance zones are set up. There is regionalisation. Any pork in the affected region cannot be exported. There is little risk of pig meat carrying the virus getting into Ireland. We do not import much pork from the African swine fever-positive countries in eastern Europe.

I apologise for not being here, but I listened to the witnesses' opening remarks in my office. I thank them for their contributions. The witnesses may have touched on this already. Some countries have had African swine fever and have managed to eliminate it. Has that been done entirely through isolation and culling? This is a unique conversation for us, because usually we discuss our response to crises after they happen. This is a situation where we are trying to avoid a crisis. It is very important that this committee conveys to the relevant Departments that we have an opportunity to put the necessary protections in place. We need the all-island animal health and welfare strategy to be implemented. There is a strategy in place, with associated agreements and memorandums of understanding. We need to ensure these measures are robustly implemented.

Who is responsible for that? Does it fall entirely to the two Departments? Is there an oversight body? Is there a role for an organisation like safefood, a North-South implementation body with a particular role where food safety is concerned? Does it have a responsibility here? Could this committee recommend liaising with those organisations? Do the witnesses get a sense that communication between the two Departments is poor? I take it that the reason they are here is that they have a particular concern at this time, more so than previously.

Finally, Senator Daly referred to the importation of pig meat to restaurants and retailers in Ireland. That is a product they could easily source locally, never mind on the national market. Do the witnesses believe there is scope for better country-of-origin labelling for meat products under EU rules? Is that something this committee should pursue?

Mr. Shane McAuliffe

I thank the Deputy for his comments and questions. His first point concerned countries that have eradicated the disease. The majority of those countries, including the Czech Republic and Belgium, only had the virus among wild boar. It did not affect commercial herds. A lot of eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria are still very badly affected and are experiencing a lot of virus outbreaks.

Regarding pig meat origin, we in Ireland are quite renowned for our national DNA database. The DNA of every single boar in the country is kept on a national database, which allows the IFA to go into any supermarket, restaurant, hotel or deli in the country, pick up a piece of pig meat and test to see if it is Irish or not. The IFA can find out if a restaurant is actually serving a full Irish. Mr. Robert Malone might comment on the policy.

Mr. Robert Malone

I would like to highlight the point on DNA and the origin of meat. We have country-of-origin labelling in Europe. That is enforced and regulated by the HSE and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The pig farmers of Ireland set the DNA scheme up through the IFA. It has made great progress. Any retailer in Ireland today offers Bord Bia quality-assured pig meat. A buyer can be 100% certain that it comes from an Irish farm. We are making progress in the food service sector, which is not as compliant and does not always have an Irish offering. Using the DNA database we can take a sample of a rasher, sausage, etc., in any food service outlet and find out whether it is Irish. Through our communications with them, the IFA has convinced many people to offer-----

Does Mr. Malone accept that there is not the same level of emphasis as with other products? Restaurants, even fast food outlets, make it very clear that they serve Irish beef. It is very obvious if that is not mentioned. It is not the same for pork-based products.

Mr. Robert Malone

The Deputy is right. That does not apply to pork or chicken. We are working on that. We are a pig meat exporting country, although we consume more rasher meat than we produce. We are working on that, and there is growth potential in our pig industry. That important work would be undone if African swine fever appeared in one pig in one farmer's backyard. We would lose all those markets and devastate the industry. That is why we are here.

Regarding overall policy and an all-Ireland approach, we have an overarching strategy but we wish to highlight it and raise it to the highest levels. We need our Minister to meet with the Minister in the North and raise the profile of this issue. Covid-19, bird flu and other issues are always on the agenda, but we have an opportunity to make sure we have the strictest protocols and do everything we can to stop this virus before it comes into the country. We have benefits other countries do not have; we are an island and we do not have a wild boar population. We are here to highlight the reasons we cannot allow the virus in. We have solutions.

We had previously agreed to arrange to meet with our counterparts in the Stormont Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Perhaps we could include this item in our agenda whenever that happens.

That is a good point. I would like to thank the witnesses for coming in, both those who joined us physically and those who contributed remotely. They have given us a good overview of the issue. The only thing they did not mention was the increase in feed costs. This is an added complication, which affects all farming sectors, but the pig industry is more dependent on feed.

I assure the witnesses that we will draft a letter to the Minister and the Secretary General of the Department highlighting their two priorities. They have been very clear on their asks. It has been said here that we are trying to close the door before the horse has bolted. More often than not we are chasing the tail of a crisis. We are ahead of the game here. This virus is not in the country at the moment and the witnesses have very sensible asks: to increase awareness and to implement an all-Ireland approach. An all-Ireland approach is imperative for every disease. A disease does not know when it is crossing a border. We will do that and we will send the witnesses copies of the documentation. They should feel free to keep in communication with us and we will highlight this issue with both the Minister and the Secretary General.

The joint committee suspended at 10.39 a.m., resumed in private session at 10.45 a.m. and adjourned at 11.13 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 January 2021.