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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network. Learn more here.

The U.S. is bracing for a virus that could devastate its hog operations

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media File Photo

Meat processors and agriculture officials are making sure they're prepared against a highly contagious swine disease.

An African Swine Fever outbreak in the U.S. could kill millions of pigs in the country, mean financial ruin for some growers and put a quick end to the country’s lucrative pork exports.

So federal and state officials, made all the more wary by the disease showing up in the Caribbean, have begun plotting how they might contain the virus if it showed up on the American mainland.

For good reason. It’s a formidable foe that no vaccine can fend off and is fatal to both hogs and, potentially, to the businesses that rely on them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Tyson Foods and other partners held a mock exercise last month to work on their response to a potential outbreak.

KatieRose McCullough, the director of regulatory and scientific affairs with the North American Meat Institute, said during a media briefing that the meatpacking industry needs to prepare for a possible outbreak.

“With as much loads coming in, there’s potential spread that can come out of the packing plant with a widespread outbreak, to other farms, which could exacerbate any potential outbreak that there is,” she said.

McCullough said the mock exercise showed the group some areas it needs to work on, like identifying meatpacking workers who live on hog farms and could end up as accidental carriers either to the plants or to their own pigs.

“Are they,” she said, “being provided different PPE to be wearing in our facility or alternative clothing?”

People who work with hogs also need to encourage trucks to get washed as soon as they leave meatpacking facilities to prevent potential spread, McCullough said.

During the exercise, participants used a tool called AgView to exchange information about animals moving through a packing plant. Barb Masters, the vice president for regulatory policy, food and agriculture at Tyson Foods, said if a state were to ask for that information today, Tyson would provide it with paper records. But the AgView technology would help Tyson provide more accessible electronic records to the state.

“The easier we can make that to give that information to (Iowa’s state veterinarian), and so he can have it in a form that he can put it into his regulatory system, the easier we can make it, the quicker he can do his investigation,” Masters said.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been monitoring the disease around the world for the last few years. Rosemary Sifford, the deputy administrator of USDA APHIS, said it’s spread from Sub-Saharan Africa to Asia to Europe, and it’s been moving through Europe at a “fairly rapid pace.”

“For a few years now, we've really had a focus on what the virus is doing and where it's moving and the risks to the United States,” she said.

In July, African Swine Fever was confirmed in the Caribbean — the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Sifford said the U.S. has been working with those countries to stamp out the disease.

“(The) Dominican Republic and Haiti right now are our biggest concern in terms of proximity of the virus to the United States and the risk level,” Sifford said. “But we do also still recognize the risk level for products and people moving from other countries that have the virus in Asia and Europe.”