Minnesota Soybean Business

Keeping ASF at bay

January-February 2020

African Swine Fever has found itself in the headlines all across the globe; its potential to harm agriculture is so vast the virus has been dubbed “the worse global disease seen in this generation.”

African Swine Fever, or ASF, is caused by a very large, stable virus that lives well outside the host. Its only host is a pig – it’s critical to highlight that ASF does not affecting humans or other species.

Dr. Scott Dee

Dr. Scott Dee, veterinarian for Pipestone Veterinary Systems (PVS), says first and foremost, knowing pork is safe to eat is a primary focus of the pork industry.

“The pork is safe to eat, even if the virus is present, because it doesn’t affect people,” says Dee, who serves as the director of research at PVS. “But what it does to the pig is tough. It’s a highly contagious hemorrhagic viral disease, which destroys the blood cells, causing a lot of bleeding and a high fever. The mortality rate is close to 100 percent. If a pig becomes infected, it is almost certain they will die. There is no vaccine and probably won’t be for some time.”

The beginning symptoms to ASF is very similar to other pig diseases, including porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) or salmonella.

“It’s hard to tell if it’s ASF right away. It starts off very slow,” Dee says. “It’s an animal here and an animal there. But with our experience on our farms in China, it then turns into close to 100 percent mortality within a month.”

The origin

The virus itself has been around for close to 100 years but first noticed in Africa, which is where ASF gets its name.

“Things changed when the virus entered eastern Europe,” Dee says. “New strains emerged from the country of Georgia and it spread from east to west. It got into Russia. In 2018, it was announced ASF was found in China. Since then, it’s been moving quite rapidly throughout the Asian continent. The majority of southeast Asia is now infected. It’s on the move, there’s no doubt about it.”

The ability for the virus to move so quickly throughout these countries can be traced to several factors, with the initial thoughts pointing at migrating wild boars and transportation of fresh meat.

“It lives for several months in fresh meat, years if it is frozen,” Dee says.

When it comes to control and elimination of the virus, Dee says Spain and Russia have been the primary leaders.

“I believe Spain did eliminate the virus, whereas Russia has been very aggressive,” he says. “They (Russia) have some very strict government policies farmers have to follow if they become infected.”

As for Asia and China, Dee says they haven’t done as much for control.

“The Chinese approach has always been vaccination and just live with the disease. But it doesn’t look like there will be anything for quite some time,” he says, adding he believes the virus is worse in China than what is reported. “Much of their stored, frozen pork is also infected. When thawed, the virus will still be present.”

Working together

Dee and Dr. Megan Niederwerder of Kansas State University have teamed up to research the transmission and survival of ASFV, simulating the movement of feed ingredient products from an ASF-infected country to the U.S.

But even before researching ASF, Dee says he had already researched other swine viruses and their ability to survive in feed ingredients, including the most recent porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV).

“In 2014-2015, we developed a simulation that showed PEDV could live in several feed ingredients, including soy, from a model moving from Beijing to Des Moines. We tried to reproduce the time table, conditions and the environment,” Dee says. “Through that simulation, under those experimental conditions, it showed certain ingredients, especially high protein low fat soybean meal, the virus seemed to live in that surprisingly well, even out to 180 days.”

Because Dee does a majority of his research out of South Dakota State University, which is only a level 2 biosafety (BSL-2) laboratory, meaning he can only work with certain viruses, it was logical to work with Niederwerder and Kansas State University’s biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) facility.

“I had asked her to work with the Georgia strain of the ASF virus and simulate the movement from Poland to Des Moines, because at that time, it hadn’t been reported in China,” says Dee, reiterating these are laboratory experiments in a well-controlled environment. “The results were very similar (to PEDV). ASF lives very well in many ingredients, three of those were soy-based – soy oil cake, and both conventional and organic soybean meal.”

Dee says it is unknown why soy-based products are protective of viruses such as ASF, but noted the virus did survive better in the high protein, low fat conventional soybean meal versus the lower protein, higher fat organic soybean meal.

“It survived in both, but the organic wasn’t as supportive,” he says. “It could have to do with the difference in fat and protein content, but no one really knows.”

The study tested 14 ingredients, with the virus surviving the 30-day simulated journey in nine of those ingredients, along with the stock virus control, which didn’t contain any ingredients.

“It was the only virus that survived in the control container. That shows how stable it is.”

In the U.S., research on ASF can only be conducted in two locations – Kansas State University’s laboratory and Plum Island off of New York, where the U.S. has dedicated the federal study of animal diseases.

A proactive approach

The U.S. pork and feed industry has been keeping a close eye on the ASF virus, researching various ways to keep the country ASF-free or to mitigate the risk.

Dee says one idea being researched is a holding period on imported ingredients.

“One idea I have presented on is ‘feed quarantine.’ The feed would be stored for a certain amount of time at a stable temperature because the virus will eventually die if not frozen. This is something that has really caught on across the U.S., and Canada, as well,” says Dee, noting many companies, including his employer, have already taken this proactive approach.

Because a holding period is not regulated in the U.S., Dee says this approach is completely industry-driven and backed by producers and several national organizations.

“Our government isn’t ready to step in quite yet. They want to see what the industry can do, so it’s up to us to get it started.”

On the other hand, Dee says, Canada has taken more of a policy approach, implementing holding times and using detailed documentation when importing from high risk countries.

“Canada is a great example of how they use science to develop a protocol to keep their country ASF-free,” Dee says. “But Canada can be doing a great job and if we aren’t, it’ll enter Canada regardless. Or the same thing with Mexico. It takes all of us.”

A second proactive approach has also been researching feed additives, especially at the mill level.

“I have started researching different products on the market or what companies are working on and seeing if they have any anti-viral properties,” he says. “Again, I can’t use ASFV, but I can use the Seneca virus, PEDV, or PRRS. From what we’ve seen, pigs typically perform better on mitigated feed versus non-mitigated feed. Dr. Niederwerder will then take that information and test it against ASFV in her laboratory. It’s a nice team approach.”

The underlying question

One of the most common questions asked, especially since Minnesota is the country’s third largest soybean producing state, is: why does the U.S. import soybean meal?

“Occasionally we find mills who import organic soy products in order to create a niche market for the organic producers,” Dee explains. “The U.S. produces some of the highest quality soy in the world. Producers need to put pressure on the mills to use our own product instead of imported feed from high risk countries.”

In 2018, the U.S. imported 104,000 metric tons of soy-based products from China, Ukraine and Russia. Most of which was labeled organic. In the same year, the U.S. exported 48 million metric tons of soy-based products.

“It’s such a small piece of the pie, but could have such a devastating impact to our country,” Dee says. “According to an Iowa State economic assessment, if we were to become infected with ASFV, it would cost our country $16 billion across all livestock and grain sectors in just the first year.”

soybean-newsThe commodities sent to the U.S. from countries like China are grown in the field but placed on streets to be ground and bagged before exporting. Dee says he has seen firsthand the material come in contact with vehicle traffic, livestock trailers and people’s feet.

“We’ve actually found the virus in that material on the ground, and that’s what is being bagged up and sent off. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d say, ‘No more of that.’ That’s the biggest risk to our country.”

Joe Smentek, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association executive director, says this is one example of why MSGA advocated for the Soy Innovation Campus (SI Campus).

“The specialty crush facility at the Soy Innovation Campus will plan to have dedicated tanks, which be quick and easy to clean, allowing operators to easily switch between various crops, including GMO, GMO and organic in a cost-effective way,” Smentek says. “Minnesota farmers produce some of the best soy in the world, but when it comes to those specialty markets, they struggle finding a place to crush their product or buy a specific product. The SI Campus will help meet this need and hopefully eliminate the import of products from high risk countries. We need to continue the push of using our own product.”

In 2018, the SI Campus, which will be housed near the University of Minnesota – Crookston campus, received $5 million from the state’s legislature for a small, specialty crush facility. The campus plans to break ground in summer 2020.

Smentek adds that if the U.S. were to become infected, the soybean industry would also be impacted.

“Our industry would take a huge hit,” Smentek says. “Not only because there would be less pigs to feed, but knowing the virus can live in soy, it would directly impact the ability to export our product. This is certainly an issue the pork and soybean industries can come together on, both at the state and national levels.”


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