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Could a deadly pig virus transform Germany’s fixation on 'cheap meat'?

Posted at Jan 07, 2021

I t was the stench of the wild boar’s carcass that first caught the rambler’s attention. Bits of hide and a few bones were all that was left of the animal, found in September on the edge of a maize field in the north-east state of Brandenburg, which encircles Berlin.

Tests quickly showed that it had died from African swine fever, or ASF. It was found 20km from the last known outbreak in neighbouring Poland.

“It was hardly a surprise,” says Petra Senger, the official vet for the administrative region of Oder-Spree, who ordered the tests. “We had been expecting it for a long time.”

Since the discovery of the first ASF case in Germany, state authorities have erected kilometres of metal fencing, informed farmers, enrolled sniffer dogs, equipped hunters with night-vision equipment, paid them for each cadaver shot and asked walkers to be on the alert.

The effects for many farmers are devastating. Where an infected cadaver is found, no harvesting or hunting is allowed within a radius of at least 15km. No pigs or pork can leave the area. Large areas of crops have had to be destroyed to avoid them entering the food chain in case they are infected.

The number of officially registered cases of ASF in Germany has now reached more than 300. So far the disease – not harmful to other animals but devastating to pigs – has only been found in wild animals. Farm pigs have so far not been affected. But agricultural experts worry that it is only a matter of time.

The area affected by ASF and radius of measures to prevent spread of the virus. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

African swine fever is believed to have reached Europe in 2007, when it was found in meat on a rubbish dump in Georgia, which had arrived from Africa by ship. Since then the disease has spread, from Georgia to Russia, from Russia to Ukraine, then to Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Korea, China and Papua New Guinea.

It surprised health authorities and veterinary controllers in Germany that Europe’s biggest economy, which counts alongside the US and Spain as one of the world’s biggest pork exporters, had remained unscathed for so long.

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Pig farmers are now feeling the pressure over a blanket ban by China and other Asian countries on the import of German pork. More than a quarter of pork exports in the first six months of 2020 – valued at €2.4bn (£2.1bn) – went to China, according to Germany’s statistics office, double the amount for the whole of last year.

The reason for the massive increase was China’s own battle with ASF. The world’s biggest pork producer and consumer had to slaughter around 200 million pigs last year as the disease spread across the country.

Has Germany’s pig industry got too big?

The irony is that the biggest crisis Germany’s pork industry has ever faced has occurred as Germans are reducing their own pork consumption year on year, prompting the question as to why Germany needs to produce so much pork at all.

Industry watchers say that unlike other German exports, such as manufactured goods, a quick look at the pork industry shows it is not something to be particularly proud of.

Mass-scale pork farming – which among other things can contaminate large amounts of groundwater and promote the use of antibiotics – can be detrimental to the environment and to public health. The animals are fed with protein-rich soya, for which, say detractors, large swathes of forest are felled in Brazil.

Neither is the industry a huge employer, owing to much of it being fully automated, and profits are concentrated in few hands.

The rise of ASF coupled with the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a heated debate over what many see as a perverse system in which unbridled capitalism profits from the problems of mass production and consumption.

Critics say Germany’s mass-scale pork farming is detrimental to the environment and public health. Photograph: Jan Woitas/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

After the first ASF case was confirmed in Germany, the industry’s pork prices inevitably plunged, while China’s prices rose. The German government is currently in intensive talks with its Chinese counterparts about easing the ban. It would like China to be more selective by banning imports only from the specific region where ASF has been found, rather than the whole country.

The wider meat industry had already been under the spotlight after a number of plants across the country temporarily closed last year following hundreds of workers testing positive for Covid-19. The German government said the high number of infections showed that better health and safety was “urgently needed” in the industry.

Senger, the vet who dealt with the first ASF carcass in Brandenburg, has said she hopes both crises will offer a chance to revamp a system that “only functions due to what for me are crooked economic mechanisms” so that it becomes more local and less global.

An end to cheap meat?

Matthias Wolfschmidt of the consumer organisation Foodwatch, also a vet, believes that the fixation on exports is the main problem.

“We fatten up the pigs with feed we don’t have in order to produce meat that we don’t need.” He added: “The winners are the ones who produce the cheapest meat, for both the European single market and the global market.”

We fatten up the pigs with feed we don’t have in order to produce meat that we don’t need Matthias Wolfschmidt, Foodwatch

Lobby groups for pork farmers say it is not just the export market to blame for the low prices they receive for their animals, which make it increasingly difficult to breed and raise animals with welfare in mind. They say the supermarkets are a huge part of the problem.

Persistent attempts to keep prices low and high charges by abattoirs are seen as the main reasons for the growth in mass pig farms as smaller farmers are squeezed out. According to the German Farmers’ Association (DBV), in 1950 there were around 2.4 million pig farmers in Germany, each keeping an average of five pigs, or a total of around 12 million animals. Currently there are just 20,400 pig farms that together have 25.5 million pigs, an average of just under 1,250 a farm.

In a recent attempt to assuage farmers’ anger and dampen the conflict over prices, Schwarz Group – which operates the supermarket chains Lidl and Kaufland – said it would pay €50m (£45m) into a government-sponsored “animal welfare” fund, to help farmers affected by ASF and coronavirus.

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The environmental campaign group Greenpeace welcomed the announcement. But it insisted that what was really needed was a system change. “The competition for the cheapest food must finally come to an end,” it argued.

Meanwhile as efforts to stop ASF from spreading continue, hunters have been heeding calls for months to kill as many wild boar as possible, in order to dampen the risk of spreading the disease.

But they have been hindered by coronavirus restrictions, which since November have prevented larger hunts – typically involving shooters, beaters and dogs – from taking place, meaning that hunting quotas are in danger of not being met.

Torsten Reinwald from the German hunters’ association told German media that if hunts are not allowed to take place the wild boar population, which has been on the rise for years in Germany, will explode, leading to a greater danger of ASF spreading. “Wild boar have a reproduction rate of almost 300%. Where 100 wild boar are left alive, you can expect 400 next year. For the spread of ASF this is fatal,” he said.

A wild boar runs through a forest in the Taunus region near Frankfurt, Germany, where the first case of ASF was discovered in September. Photograph: Michael Probst/AP

In parts of Germany authorities that recognise the need for action are subsidising sales of night-vision equipment to encourage hunters to go out at night when the boars are more active. Hunters are receiving €30 (£27) for every female cadaver.

Advocates of wild boar meat are trying to persuade German consumers to switch to what they say is the healthiest, most environmentally friendly form of protein available. Meanwhile, animal rights campaigners have upped their game to save the wild boar, which they refer to as the innocent victim in the whole ASF, low-cost meat drama.

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