Feed manufacturers and farmers are spearheading efforts to improve biosecurity amid African swine fever (ASF) concerns, as preventative nutrition and vaccine innovation also take the spotlight.
ASF, a viral disease that affects porcine species, has plagued numerous markets in recent years, most notably China, the world’s largest pork consumer and producer. Since China’s first ASF outbreak more than a year ago, the country has culled some 1.1 million of its estimated 350 million pigs.
Impact on Europe has been mixed, with pockets of ASF outbreaks primarily in wild boar. Nonetheless, the European Commission (EC) says the transmissible disease has potential for “very serious and rapid spread, irrespective of national borders,” and therefore remains of “major importance in the international trade of animals and animal products.”
To date, there have been close to 4,000 outbreaks in wild boar populations across Europe, mostly in Hungary, and about 600 outbreaks in European commercial holdings, largely in Romania, according to the EC’s Animal Disease Notification System. The Czech Republic recently declared itself free from ASF after eradicating presence in its wild boar population.
The impact of ASF on European pig farmers has been “important and diverse,” but most outbreaks in Europe have been limited to wild boar populations. (Stefan Dinse | iStock.com)
‘You’re as weak as the weakest fork in the chain’
Alexander Döring, secretary general of the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC), says that, while ASF concerns in Europe have not impacted feed demand, they have triggered questions.
“Our members do report that they face questions about potential links to feed as a potential carrier of the ASF virus,” Döring says.
While no outbreak of ASF in the region has been linked to feed, concerns are valid given the virus can remain stable in the environment, including feedstuffs, recent research shows.
“Of course, the whole situation, like in other regions, leads to strengthened investment in biosecurity measures also at feed level because, in the end, it’s probably the feed supplier that has the closest contact with farms in restricted areas,” Döring says.
There are difficulties for compound feed suppliers with cross-country trade, he adds, especially between impacted and non-impacted zones, but FEFAC is continuing workshops, education and case study sharing across the sector to bolster awareness and best practice. Learnings from the ASF outbreak on the Iberian Peninsula in the 1960s and 1990s, for example, can be shared and built on, he says.
Arnaud Bouxin, deputy secretary general of FEFAC, says tackling biosecurity risks requires every part of the chain to take responsibility.
“Whatever you do as an operator, you’re as weak as the weakest fork in the chain. It’s not a matter of one part of the chain; everyone has to move in the same direction,” Bouxin says.
The farm is, of course, a “central point” given its numerous interactions with different parts of the supply chain, he notes, but all stakeholders must act in a “coordinated manner” and feed manufacturers have an important role to play. “Whenever the farmer does not have a sufficient level of biosecurity in place, then it’s the role also of the feed manufacturers to warn, identify and point to potential weaknesses.”
An ASF vaccination is at least five years off, says an expert. (dusanpetkovic | iStock.com)
Farm impact has been ‘important and diverse’
Thomas Sanchez, policy adviser at COPA-COGECA — the umbrella union for European farm cooperatives — agrees that the “top priority” has to be improving biosecurity measures along the entire supply chain.
Sanchez says COPA-COGECA is working closely with the EC and Member States to “raise awareness,” but is working even harder on the field to do so. “While the role of the Commission and Member States in eradicating the disease is crucial, without the involvement of producers, such measures will not succeed. It is therefore up to producers to fight for the eradication of ASF, with the support of the institutions.”
Farmers, for example, have been adapting practices and infrastructure and strengthening communication and coordination to prevent any risk of contamination.
Asked what level of impact European farmers have felt thus far with ASF, Sanchez says: “Impacts have been important and diverse for farmers, especially in the regions directly affected in central and eastern Europe.”
Farmers from regions directly affected have suffered reduced market opportunities, which results in “very low prices” for stock, compounded by higher costs associated with investing and implementing stricter on-farm measures, he says. Many have also had to cull stock.
Trade woes: Import bans affecting the region
It’s not just farms from affected regions that are suffering, Sanchez says. As export bans from concerned countries take their grip, prices of European pig meat are stable but “very fragile.”
“When it comes to trade, the most significant issue for EU producers is that some of our trade partners, especially our Asian partners, still do not recognize the principle of regionalization and tend to ban all the imports coming from an affected country, even if only a region inside is actually affected … This is one of COPA and COGECA members’ key battles — to avoid that trade is not completely disrupted and that farmers quit the business.”
Karsten Maier, secretary general of the European Livestock and Meat Traders Union (UECBV), says it’s important to remember “none of the major pork-producing Member States” are affected by ASF, notably Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands and Spain, which represent 70% of EU pork production. In addition, more than 93% of domestic EU pig herds remain free from ASF.
Total EU pork exports have therefore not been drastically hit, Maier says, growing 4% last year and forecast to grow 12% this year; production also continues to steadily grow.
The EC’s regionalization principle for ASF — setting out a series of animal health movement restrictions and control measures on the dispatch of pigs, pig meat, certain pig products and wild boar meat for regions affected or at risk according to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) standard — has helped hugely, he says, but unfortunately the principle would best work if applied globally.
“The fact that large pork importer countries don’t abide by the OIE standard on the regionalization principle is a Damocles sword for the large pork exporter EU Member States. The sustainability of not only the international trade but also the food supply security in several regions of the world will depend on a more science-based strategy and the compliance with the international standards; the EU model could be a benchmark,” Maier says.
Sanchez adds that as global awareness on ASF increases, common interest is focusing on potential vaccines.
But, a vaccination against the ASF virus is “probably at least five” years away from commercialization, needing several more years in the lab, according to Chris Netherton, institute fellow and ASF vaccinology group leader at UK viral disease specialist The Pirbright Institute.
Traditional methods haven’t worked
“The traditional methods of making vaccines have not been successful with ASF,” Netherton says. Inactivated virus vaccines are not effective and attenuated strains of ASF protect against related virulent strains of the virus but there are side effects in pigs, including a chronic form of the disease, he explains.
The Pirbright Institute is therefore focused on two approaches to developing an ASF vaccine: either generating a modified live virus by targeted gene deletion or generating a subunit vaccine where pigs are immunized with a number of ASF virus genes that can induce a protective response.
In the first instance, the team has already identified a number of genes that can attenuate the genotype I viruses present in Western Africa and Sardinia and are now exploring whether these can be used for other strains, particularly those circulating Europe and Asia, he says. The second strategy is “potentially more complicated” due to the size of the virus, he says, but it avoids safety concerns associated with a live attenuated strain. The team has already carried out successful screens to identify genes that could induce an immune response.
In the meantime, Netherton says maintaining a “reliable and biosecure feedstuff supply chain” will be crucial as, in the absence of close contact with wild boar, the “most likely route” for the disease to get onto farms is through ingestion of contaminated pork or pork products.
Research and work in the field of the gut microbiome will also be important, he adds. “As we approach the development of an effective ASF vaccine, then the effect of feed and nutrition on the microbiome and hence vaccine-induced immune responses is likely to be an active area of research.”
ASF ‘certainly going to stay with us for some time’
Joerg Seifert, secretary general for the EU Association of Specialty Feed Ingredients and their Mixtures (FEFANA), says the feed additives sector supports ongoing research and investment into animal in resilience, supporting the notion that nutrition has a “crucial function” in animal performance.
“Specialty feed ingredients used in feed and pet foods are pivotal contributors to ensuring adequate nutrition and/or optimal animal well-being, including support of animals’ defenses,” Seifert says.
Döring adds that FEFAC and FEFANA have already come a long way in driving preventative nutrition as the Commission works to cut down antibiotic use in livestock.
“Prevention is always better than cure, and if you think about prevention, you think about feed,” Döring says. “Everyone appreciates the value of sharing best practices and science and research on things like new veterinary medicines, additives and innovations in the pipeline related to gut health stimulation etc., so, clearly there is recognition that only together, in a more holistic approach, we are able to deliver better solutions at farm level.”
Importantly, he says Europe must acknowledge that the ASF situation is “certainly going to stay with us for some time.”
“Attention must remain high, vigilance must remain high, and of course our main target is through the interaction with farmers to reduce and eliminate cases in commercial holdings – that’s the main objective and our main contribution,” Döring says.