Hong Kong agriculture officials defended the city’s more relaxed response to the threat of African swine fever on Friday, as the livestock industry called for a compensation scheme for pig farmers.
Thomas Sit Hon-chung, assistant director of inspection and quarantine at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, said the city was facing a medium-level risk of an outbreak, a day after food safety officials held talks to prepare for the disease’s potential spread.
Preparation measures in Hong Kong escalated after the national Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs reported 11 pigs had contracted the disease and died at a slaughterhouse in the Xiangzhou district of Zhuhai, Guangdong, just 60km from the city on the opposite bank of the Pearl River Delta.
Speaking on an RTHK radio programme, Sit said all pigs at a local farm would be killed if some of them were found to have caught the virus. All farms within 3km of an infected one would have to suspend their supply to the market until official testing showed negative results, he added.
This approach was said to be more relaxed than that adopted in mainland China, where all pigs on farms within 3km were killed while supply was suspended for farms within 13km.
Sit, however, defended Hong Kong’s policy, saying the city was relatively small and every pig farm would be monitored by officials.
“When we look at the World Organisation for Animal Health’s guidelines, they state that we have to consider different management approaches for each place, as they face a different epidemic situation and geographic environment,” he said.
“The most important thing is to control the epidemic.”
Professor Dirk Pfeiffer from City University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences said in a media briefing on Friday that as the disease was not zoonotic – meaning it cannot spread from animals to humans – there should be “a smart approach” to the situation.
“We need to be proportionate in the response,” said Pfeiffer, who has researched the virus since 2005. “It’s not like there was an Ebola coming across the border.”
“If we were to stop imports from the mainland, it would be a disproportionate reaction,” he said.
Pfeiffer suggested steps to prevent the spread of the virus to Hong Kong, including high biosecurity measures on mainland farms that supplied the animals to the city. There should also be no swill feeding to pigs, a practice that has been linked to the transmission of the virus.
Hong Kong Livestock Industry Association president Tam Kwok-chu said the government had not talked to the farmers about a compensation mechanism to safeguard their interests.
“For pig farmers, when you have to kill their property, you should have a clear compensation direction,” he said.
Sit said officials would take reference from current market prices and that the compensation had been roughly set, though the details still needed to be ironed out with finance officials.
He said a series of proposed policies for culling, sanitation and follow-up measures would be discussed with farmers around the Christmas period.
On the same RTHK programme, Dr Ho Yuk-yin, controller at the Centre for Food Safety, reiterated that the virus could not spread to humans and that pork and pork products were safe to eat after being properly cooked.
Amid concerns the virus could spread from imported pigs at local slaughterhouses, Ho said stringent checks were in place in Hong Kong. Since the virus had an incubation period of at least three days, he added, pigs were unlikely to fall ill during their short stay at slaughterhouses.
On Thursday, food safety officials revealed they had been in talks with members of the pork industry about segregating local and mainland pigs during slaughter, but the centre said the separate ownership and operation of the city’s two main abattoirs made such a move difficult.
Ho said separation was a good suggestion, but there were divided views within the industry. He said officials hoped the measure could be adopted as soon as possible.
Hui Wai-kin, secretary general of the Pork Traders General Association of Hong Kong, said the sector had agreed on the separation of the animals, and there were just some logistics issues.
He said the mainland side had exhausted all means to make sure the meat was safe, so the public did not need to worry about a halt in the pork supply to Hong Kong. However, the amount of imported pork could be reduced, Hui said.
Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Leung Siu-fai said the government had taken measures since August to prevent the spread of African swine fever in Hong Kong.
That included prohibiting farmers from feeding swill of animal origin to pigs, and improving hygiene at farms.
“We have also stopped importing pigs for breeding from the mainland,” Leung said.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung and Sum Lok-kei