By Madelaine Miraflor
The Department of Agriculture (DA) has confirmed that the processed pork products illegally shipped from China to the Philippines are contaminated with the African swine fever (ASF) virus.
The DA revealed this Monday as it appealed to hog raisers and traders not to sell and trade pigs that are suspected to have ASF. It likewise warned that anyone caught illegally transporting pork products will be penalized.
The processed pork products from China, loaded in two containers and misdeclared as tomato paste and vermicelli, were apprehended two weeks ago at the Port of Manila.
Apart from the ASF-contaminated pork product from China, authorities also arrested a traveler from Batangas who brought a package of branded and unbranded processed pork products, which were confiscated by a composite veterinary and quarantine team at Calapan Port, on October 6, 2019.
The seized items bought from local markets in Luzon – which included products of Mekeni Food Corp. – were tested positive for ASF.
Officials suspected that ASF had reached Pampanga due to illegal transportation of hogs from Bulacan, where some pigs were tested positive for ASF.
The government has long established that the illegal transport of live pigs and pork products from areas struck by ASF is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to keep the deadly hog disease from reaching more backyard farms in Luzon.
But until now, nobody has been penalized yet, officials said.
ASF Crisis Management Team Head Rieldrin Morales said since ASF was first detected in Rizal province in August, the Philippine government is yet to penalize anyone for illegally transporting hogs and processed pork products from areas hit by the virus.
Even those who smuggled pork products from ASF-hit countries like China have remained off the hook, he added.
The problem, he said, is that the ASF Crisis Management Team, led by the DA, couldn’t necessarily go after the smugglers and illegal meat traders with a lawsuit.
He said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deals with finished and processed products, while it’s the Bureau of Customs (BOC) that handles smuggled products.
As for the illegal trade of raw meat, it’s the National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS) that could charge involved individuals and groups.
When asked about this, Agriculture Secretary William Dar said “it’s about due process”.
“Who apprehended the processed pork products in Manila? It’s the City of Manila. Who did it in the customs area? It’s the BOC. Who did it in Calapan? It’s their provincial government,” Dar said.
“Our lead responsibility is to help them,” Dar said.
Though nobody has yet been charged, Dar said it is crime to sell, trade, and slaughter sick or dead pigs for meat or for the processed pork products.
Violators, he said, face imprisonment from six to 12 years and fine of P100,000 to P1 million.
Dar said he is “pleading” to hog raisers to report suspected cases of ASF and for hog traders not to sell pigs from areas hit by the deadly swine disease.
In the Philippines, ASF was first discovered in Rizal and had since then spread to other areas in Luzon, including Bulacan, Pampanga, Quezon City, Cavite, Nueva Ecija, Cavite, Pangasinan, and Antipolo.
ASF zoning plan
To contain ASF, Morales said the DA is now preparing a National Zoning Plan.
World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said that to facilitate disease control and the continuation of trade following a disease outbreak in a country, zoning may allow the government to limit the extension of the disease to a defined restricted area, while preserving the status of the remaining territory.
“With this zoning plan, the whole of Visayas and Mindanao and provinces of Mimaropa and Masbate will be declared as free zone while Luzon will be the containment zone. Within this containment zone, there will be protected zones,” Morales said.
“And we are looking at Regions III and IV-A as the highest risk areas because they have the highest hog in Luzon. These are considered as surveillance zone,” he added.
He then noted that free zones are considered as clean zones and that they can send their pigs anywhere in the country, while infected zones can trade only with infected zones.
Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) Director Ronnie Domingo said zoning is the same method the Philippine government used to get rid of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which is also a highly contagious viral disease of many wild and domestic cloven-footed mammals and many other animals.
Meanwhile, Mekeni Food Corporation could lose its license to sell processed pork products if the government finds out that the company has failed to follow the country’s food safety standards.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stressed this as further tests conducted by the the BAI confirmed that specific batches of two of Mekeni products – Mekeni Picnic Hotdog Regular 500g and Mekeni Skinless Longaniza (Uncooked) 200g – indeed have deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) traces of ASF.
On Monday, Health Undersecretary and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officer-in-charge Eric Domingo said his agency already wrote to Mekeni to explain why their products have been contaminated with ASF.
“We are just waiting for their response,” Domingo said. “After investigation, we can file an administrative case against them or possibly revoke their license to sell pork products.”