BEIJING (REUTERS) - China has ordered the world's top pork producer, WH Group, to shut a major slaughterhouse as authorities race to stop the spread of deadly African swine fever (ASF) after a second outbreak in the planet's biggest hog herd in two weeks.
The discovery of infected pigs in Zhengzhou city, in central Henan province, about 1,000km from the first case ever reported in China, has stirred animal health experts' fears of fresh outbreaks - as well as food safety concerns among the public.
Though often fatal to pigs, with no vaccine available, ASF does not affect humans, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
ASF, which has been detected in Russia and Eastern Europe as well as Africa, though never before in East Asia, is one of the most devastating diseases to affect swine herds.
It occurs among commercial herds and wild boars, is transmitted by ticks and direct contact between animals, and can also travel via contaminated food, animal feed, and international travellers.
WH Group said in a statement that Zhengzhou city authorities had ordered a temporary six-week closure of the slaughterhouse after some 30 hogs died of the highly contagious illness on Thursday (Aug 16). The plant is one of 15 controlled by China's largest pork processor Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development, a subsidiary of WH Group.
Zhengzhou city authorities have banned all movement of pigs and pork products in and out of the affected area for the same six weeks.
Shuanghui said in a separate statement on Friday that it culled 1,362 pigs at the slaughterhouse after the infection was discovered.
The infected pigs had travelled by road from a live market in Jiamusi city in China's north-eastern province of Heilongjiang, through areas of high pig density to central Henan.
Another north-eastern province, Liaoning, has culled thousands of pigs since a first case of ASF was reported two weeks ago.
The pigs' long journey, and the vast distance between the two cases, stoked concerns about the spread of disease across China's vast pig herd - and into East Asia.
"The areas of concern now involve multiple Chinese provinces and heighten the likelihood of further cases," the Swine Health Information Centre, a US research body, said in a note.
A LITTLE SCARED
As Zhengzhou city froze pig movements, Heilongjiang authorities were also investigating whether the pigs involved were infected in the north-eastern province bordering Russia.
Meanwhile comments on the country's Twitter-like Weibo highlighted worries about the safety of eating pork, a staple in China's diet, with retail sales topping US$840 billion (S$1.15 trillion) each year. The relationship between people and pigs in China is close, with the Chinese word for "home" made up of the character "roof" over the character for "pig".
Posts expressing concern that infected meat may enter the food stream and fears about whether it is safe to eat pork garnered the most attention.
"A little scared. What will happen if you eat (pork)?" said one poster.
WH Group said on Friday that it did not expect the closure of the Zhengzhou slaughterhouse to have any adverse material impact on business, helping its shares rise 1.6 per cent after slumping 10 per cent on Thursday. Shuanghui shares were up 1.3 per cent on Friday afternoon.
The Zhengzhou operation accounts for an "insignificant"portion of WH Group's operations, the company said, adding that it does not expect any disruption to supply of pork and related products as a result of the temporary closure. On Thursday, Shuanghui said it had diverted sales orders to other operations.