Small, informal ‘backyard’ farmers will be under the microscope of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security as officials work to avoid an outbreak of the African Swine Fever (ASF) in Barbados.
Agriculture Minister Indar Weir on Friday echoed the concerns of experts who fear that an outbreak of the deadly fever could eliminate the country’s pork industry, jeopardizing the viability of the critical sub-sector.
In fact, the Minister revealed that Cabinet is in the process of approving much of the additional human and economic resources needed to tackle the threat that could place the entire region’s livestock in jeopardy.
“African Swine Fever can wipe out an entire pork industry and all of our farmers, especially those who are involved in backyard farming who may not be reaching the required standards, are at highest risk. And, therefore, it is our business to make sure that we bring Barbados to a state of readiness,” Minister Weir declared at a briefing.
Senior Veterinary Officer Dr Mark Trotman however downplayed the notion of imposing import restrictions on Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries that trade with the Dominican Republic, where cases of the fever are soaring.
He outlined a four-point plan around the creation of a biosecure environment for at-risk livestock that includes border controls, the protection of the economic viability of the sector and the provision of transparent messaging to prevent the spread of fake news.
According to Dr Trotman, all commercial imports will be carefully screened, travellers importing meat will be more heavily scrutinized, informal imports will not clear customs without a permit and officials will be on the lookout for meat scraps, aboard international carriers, that could be vectors of the disease.
The Senior Veterinary Officer expressed serious concern about ‘backyard farms’ that have been identified as particularly vulnerable. Even more concerning is that, in most cases, ministry officials don’t even know where to find them.
“So this is an appeal to those who have pigs in their backyards or small holdings, no matter how small, even if it’s just one pig in a pen, please contact the veterinary services so that we know who you are and we can get that database compiled and know how many pigs there are in the country,” Trotman told reporters.
Sharing some important safety precautions, he said backyard and commercial farmers need to be aware of the risks and what they can do to protect the herd, protect themselves and their livelihoods: “…. By simple mechanisms like not sharing farm equipment, not going from farm to farm unless it’s absolutely necessary, and if you do, make sure you sanitise your shoes and your hands before you move from farm to farm,” he said.
Earlier this week, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Barbados Agricultural Society (BAS), James Paul expressed concern about aggressive livestock importers out of Jamaica after the country’s Ministry of Agriculture placed the country on high alert. Twenty-four hours before, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed the first cases of the virus in the Americas were in the Dominican Republic, with which Jamaica has a trading relationship.
Nevertheless, Dr Trotman claimed that with the exception of the Dominican Republic, there was no need to restrict the importation of pork products from others in the region.
“I am very confident that [Jamaica] has a very robust veterinary department and a very robust import control system and I have a lot of confidence in their ability to do what they need to do, just as I have confidence in our ability to do so,” he said.
“I am in constant contact with the Chief Veterinary Officers around the region, including the Chief Veterinary Officer in Jamaica. We meet as a CARICOM group regularly and obviously, any change would be very evident very quickly. But it would not be necessary to put restrictions on a country just because they, like we, are putting preventative measures to protect their space,” he added.
Barbadian swine have not been exposed to the virus for generations.
Symptoms of the ASF vary, but the illness often leads to sudden death.
Trotman explained: “Those that don’t die immediately will show non-specific signs of severe illness. You will probably see reddening of the skin and the ears, bleeding from the ears, bloody diarrhea, swelling of the limbs. On post mortem, you will see a lot of hemorrhaging inside the carcass. All of the organs would be bleeding. So it’s quite dramatic, but these symptoms are not typical of African Swine Fever, so it’s important that we have the diagnostic capacity to be able to test for it, because there are other very common diseases of pigs that can show one or more of the signs of African Swine Fever.”
“But as long as the virus is not in the country, there is no cause for concern, there is no reason to stop eating pork. Even if the virus is in the country, obviously any infected farm will be dealt with and pork from that farm will not get into the market. But even if the virus is present, pork is safe to eat and other animals will not contract the virus,” he added.