At the beginning of June this year, 2001, breeding grounds for classic swine fever (CSF) were discovered in two pig farms in Lérida (Catalonia). In accordance with the corresponding health emergency plan, the farms in question were immediately isolated by a cordon covering a radius of ten kilometers and all their pigs were slaughtered.
Over the next few days other cases of the disease were discovered in nearby farms and uncontrollable spreading of the epizootic disease CSF was feared. This disease only affects porcine species (wild and domestic) and although there is no risk whatsoever for man, by direct contact or consumption of meat and derivative products, it is highly contagious and lethal for the animal species concerned.
Only three weeks passed between the appearance of the first case of CSF, and Slow commissioning this article from me (allowing for editing time). The development of the situation has in practical terms been extremely fast although there can be no certainty that the veterinary health problems are completely under control.
The fact is that although this problem is exclusively connected to animal health, the repercussions for the economy, zootechnics, health and the market are considerable.
Classic swine fever is mainly endemic in Asia, South and Central America and some areas of Africa and Europe. The last instance in Spain was discovered just three years ago, and originated in Holland. It spread rapidly and involved some nearby towns but thanks to a strict and decisive health policy it was possible to control and suppress the outbreak very quickly. The only effective therapy in areas which are not endemically susceptible to this disease is to slaughter and burn or bury the animals affected and those which have come into contact with them in the same farm.
The disease is generated by a highly resistant virus which spreads rapidly among pigs, causing a high mortality rate among the infected animals. This is a serious and virulent epizootic disease which can have dangerous consequences for the country concerned, at various levels; in European nations the risks are increased by free circulation of goods inside the EC. These factors have conditioned the swift resort to drastic measures in Catalonia (where the first breeding ground was found), and throughout Spain and other EC nations in general. I would like to emphasize though that the infection is absolutely limited to the animal species in question and in no way affects humans.
However, we might wonder how new cases of classic swine fever came to spread, since the virulent nature of the disease in question is well-known, and the precedent of infected animals from Holland only occurred recently.
This was the question discussed in a directive of one of the Catalan agricultural unions, Unió de Pagesos, the day after the existence of the most recently-identified breeding ground was officially confirmed, and the answer obtained was vague if reasonable: “…this virus certainly didn’t come from nowhere…”. At this juncture a fundamental problem emerges, which goes far beyond the current situation of classic swine fever and concerns laxity in checking, abuse, clearly fraudulent and mafia-like activities stimulated by a policy of intensive food production destined to supply large markets at the lowest price and greatest profit possible.
This is the price we pay for globalization and the free market – especially when businesses are run by dishonest and unscrupulous people; the only weapons we have to fight this tendency are efficient public control systems and responsible informing of the consumer who decides whether or not to purchase and therefore is the real protagonist.
Now it seems that the CSF infection in Catalonia originated from the illegal importation of piglets from eastern countries (Rumania or Bulgaria have been mentioned) where this disease is widespread and where the reduced export market has brought about a considerable, ruinous fall in prices. Moreover the genetic tests carried out confirm that the CSF virus type identified in the pigs of Catalonia is similar to that which exists in the abovementioned eastern nations.
These facts inevitably give rise to various questions, and the answers to these questions are still being investigated. Which EC border did these infected animals cross? Who imported them? What kind of health certification were they carrying? What kind of controls and checks are carried out in European nations before free circulation of goods (in this case, live animals) is permitted?
Obviously in this case we are definitely looking at a network of fraudulent importation and trade in infected piglets. Must we then assume that a system based on connivance allows trade in apparently legal animals? There are some suspects who may be implicated but as yet there are no certainties.
In any case this is a food-sector fraud with weighty social and economic repercussions, as already proven by the cases of dioxin in animal feed, the implications for human health owing to the epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and tampering with rape-seed oil. While we cannot lump all these cases together indiscriminately, the ultimate aim is the same in all the abovementioned cases: large scale production of foods at a low price (using all kinds of leftover products or even premeditated tampering) with high profit margins.
The image conjured up by this kind of trafficking is the exact opposite of traditional small-scale production, which uses selected natural raw materials and products to obtain foods that can reassure the consumer of safety, good quality and satisfaction.
The health emergency caused by the CSF outbreak leads to another question: who can profit and benefit financially in the short, medium and long term from the state of emergency surrounding pig farming, which has led to the slaughter of an enormous number of animals? We must look for the answer in the network of interests of large companies who supply the pig farms with a complete service: from animal genetics to piglets, from sows to concentrated foods, to veterinary presidia etc., in the context of a closed circuit which relegates the farmer to the role of a simple laborer working according to conditions and prices agreed in advance.
The consumer, for his part, has another question: is it safe to go on eating fresh meat and products deriving from the meat of pigs from the area affected by infection? The answer is yes, because, as I have already said, this health problem is exclusively linked to one animal species with no danger of infection for humans, although the wide-reaching effects of the disease are serious.
The greatest difficulty derives from the fact that at the moment the precautions concerning the sanitary quality of animal products should be exacerbated because the CSF virus can survive at length even in preserved salted and smoked meats (like prosciutto and matured sausages). For this very reason the strict control measures adopted require the slaughter even of healthy animals in the areas where the infection is present. In any case, in areas of Spain unaffected by the disease products are safe, and preserved or processed meats are still prepared, sold and exported such as hams, bacon and other cured meats made from Iberian pigs.
What will the repercussions be for the prices of these very high quality products deriving from traditional Spanish farms? This is again is difficult ground.
As we can see, many questions surround the case of classic swine fever, and there are no certain answers to date …
Enric Canut Bartra, a cheese expert, is the founder of the Asociaciò per el Foment Del Fromatges Artesans. He now works with Vinoselecciòn, a major Spanish cheese and wine importer