EVANSVILLE, Ind., May 22 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans wide testing of American pigs for African swine fever this spring.
The move is part of a new surveillance program that will closely monitor for signs of the virus reaching the United States.
"An enhanced surveillance program will serve as an early warning system, helping us find any potential disease much more quickly." Greg Ibach, the USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a statement.
"It will also minimize virus spread and support efforts to restore trade markets and animal movements as quickly as possible should the disease be detected," Ibach said.
This is the agency's latest effort to guard America's swine herd against a disease that industry experts say could devastate the country's $20 billion pork industry.
Once the disease is detected in a new country, all pork exports must stop until it is contained. Roughly 25 percent of U.S. pork is exported each year.
"Our farmers are highly export dependent," David Herring, the National Pork Producers Council president, said in a statement. "An ASF outbreak would immediately close our export markets. The health of the U.S. swine herd is paramount. The livelihoods of our producers depend on it."
The virus, which does not infect humans, is spreading across China and through Asia, crippling China's hog industry -- the largest in the world. Experts predict the disease will claim some 200 million hogs in China this year.
The pork industry has been asking the USDA to establish a surveillance plan since the outbreak in China first was reported last fall.
"If it gets here, the key is to find it early," said Paul Sundberg, the director of the Swine Health Information Center in Iowa. "We need to be able to find it as soon as it gets here."
Early detection will enable the USDA to contain the outbreak more quickly, and limit its spread. There is no treatment or vaccine for the disease, which means every animal that could have been exposed to the disease would need to be immediately culled.
The area where an outbreak occurred would be quarantined until it could be verified that the disease no longer was present.
The USDA's surveillance program will piggyback on the agency's existing classical swine fever surveillance program. Classical swine fever is a different virus for which there is a vaccine.
"Both diseases present similarly," Sundberg said. "You won't be able to tell by looking at a pig if it has African swine fever or classical swine fever."
Under the program, farmers will report any pig that shows signs of the disease so that it can be tested. The USDA also will monitor slaughterhouses for animals that show symptoms.
The agency also plans to step up surveillance of "high-risk" animals, which are pigs that are fed swill (leftover table scraps or garbage), as it is more likely to contain pork that could be contaminated with the disease. Pigs that routinely come into contact with wild or feral hogs also will be monitored.
This is the USDA's latest effort to combat Asian swine fever. The majority of its work focuses on keeping the disease from reaching the United States.
The agency recently added more dogs to its "Beagle Brigade," which sniffs out pork hidden in travelers luggage at airports and border crossings. Officials also are collaborating with agents in Canada and Mexico to implement similar safeguards, while helping hog farmers boost biosecurity measures on farms.
"Our overall goal remains to keep this deadly disease out of the United States," the USDA said.