In Pig Heaven, Chinese Diners Remain
By Yoichi Shimatsu
As in past bird flu and melamine milk scandals, China's official response to yet another major threat to China's public health and food security is another round of censorship. In a span of two months, a highly virulent African swine fever virus (ASFv) has leapfrogged from a single farm in the northeast to now 11 of China's 33 major provincial-levels regions, all the way south to Ynnnan near the border of Vietnam.
The African swine virus, which kills 100 percent of infected pigs, is decimating the large-scale hog-raising operations in a country that raises and consumes half of the world's pork production. The slow response by veterinarians and feed-lot managers, and a dying mass media that no longer reaches or serves the rural population, is abetting the extermination of the nation's stock of more than 1 billion adult hogs and piglets, as happened to the slow-moving Dominican Republic.
As flu season approaches, with a steep 10-degrees C drop in outdoor temperatures at the onset of winter, the annual Lunar feast of roast suckling pig will be off the public menu on February 15, the start of Year of the Pig. What could more ominously signal the defeat of Beijing in this first round of the bilateral trade war? Even worse, rebuilding its national herd will require massive imports of soybeans at a moment when China is boycotting the world's biggest (and cheapest) soy-growing region, the American Midwest. So far, the USDA has not reported any outbreak of this particular virus in imported pork since that country is a major exporter.
Not a single economist on either side of the negotiating table suspected that food security would be the first causalty in the trade dispute. For a populous country that has suffered recurrent famines throughout its troubled history, food should have been its first priority, of far greater importance than consumer electronics, expensive cars, gasoline or the latest useless bauble called apps.
For China, import substitution with foreign-grown pork is not an option with pig numbers dropping in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, Russia and even pockets of Western Europe due to the ever-wider livestock destruction from African swine fever. Since natural transmission of the infectious disease by wild boar is simply impossible over desert terrain and long distances, the virus must have been introduced to China in August from one of the infected zones by another means, as disclosed below.
Snake biting its tail
The virology on this monster is not some dark mystery out of the lab like SARS or avian influenza. This virus, under an electron microscope, is a hexagon ring of double-strand DNA, which looks like a snake biting its tail. It is quite stable as an ever-present threat when compared with simpler RNA or single-strand DNA viruses, which rapidly mutate and soon become harmless.
This swine fever attacks and destroys the Golgi canals, located on the edge of the cell nucleus. These micro-tubes organize and command proteins toward their destinations. The disabling of a cell's ability repair itself with proteins results in the degeneration of the animal's every organ. Within 10 days the infected pig has blue blotches on its skin and deep blue coloration of the internal organs, indicative of oxygen deprivation and necrosis. Gasping for breath, the victim falls on its side, suffocating in its own nasal mucus. Photos from affected feed lots show prone hogs piled on top of each other.
Hunan toll yet unknown
Thus far, ASFv there are no confirmed human deaths, which could be a misattribution of its possible roles as an underlying cause of heart failure (as in the case of many other infectious conditions or radioactivity exposure resulting in mortality, cause of death being often falsely reported). Theoretically, there should be no barrier to cross-species infection of humans, and therefore differences of living conditions could be a factor.
In the driver for evermore profits, pigs are increasingly over-crowded and, although farm sanitation has improved, terribly exposed to bacteria in feces and therefore dosed with higher levels of antibiotics. The days of free-ranging herds on wide-open pastures, and boar-hunting in forests with big Walker dogs, is over for public consumption. Industrial rearing has led to horrific animal abuse beyond the bounds of physical tolerance and ethical decency.
Rooting Up the Cause
The Chinese government has responded by imposing a ban on feeding food waste to pigs, in this case the unlikeliest cause because the virus would have to be transmitted through uncooked dried pork products like salami or prosciutto ham. Humans can be carriers after eating contaminated raw pork slices or wearing clothes and shoes covered with pig feces, but the nearest infected farms are in Siberia, Romania, Bulgaria and Iran (a Muslim society that produces pork).
The more probable vector is infected past-expiry frozen pork carcasses from Eastern Europe, bought at steep discount and illegally shipped to China by unscrupulous importers, destined for makers of Chinese sausage (which restaurants slice and steam over sticky "pot rice", an autumn-winter dish). The scraps and blood from the defrosted pork are scraped off the floor and sold as cheap fodder to pig farms. Happy cannibals, hogs are routinely fed freezer-burned pork, blood and skin from abattoirs and meat shippers. The post-reform Chinese economy is in many ways far more toxic than the old-style rural communes with their simple lifestyle.
In answer to your darker questions, there are more don't than do's when it comes to dining in this minefield for digestion and human health. As a frequent visitor and former university lecturer here, I have survived by not going overboard for steamy delicious charshiu bao (roast-pork buns), delightful little dimsum and black-bean ribs, and instead try my best to adhere to spartan fare of peppery "yang-rou mien" (mutton noodle soup) for protein and calcium, although not one of the Muslim faith. As a friend, an "old China hand" put it, the present pig epidemic is "the revenge of the Uyghurs". That's a sharp blade, indeed.
Althhough I may sound absurdly superstitious, karma is strong and vindictive here in East Asia and the Bodhidharma (Da Mo, Daruma) got that right: Consume less, stay calm, reject temptation and try to do no harm. Now taking the next logical step and becoming a vegan may seem right until you consider the ingestion of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, radioactive rainfall and the MSG tossed in gratuitously. Just about everything is poisoned, and in many cases even one's mind.
Now if one happends to be a pig in the poke with a high IQ, there are other troubling issues to contemplate.
- Origins: ASFv is endemic to the vast savannas of Kenya like the Serengetti, where warthogs are constantly wagging their tails to ward off the virus-carrying ticks. The British colonialists introduced their Glouster Old Spots and Oxford Sandy for scrumptious back bacon and pork pies, but were the aghast when those tame porkers turned blue and gasped. Along with the pith helmet and monocle, the swine fever spread across the darkening continent. A wildebeest steak is a chewy alternative for the adventurous.
- Spain: Curiously, the ever-truthful Spaniards attribute "airline meals" as the cause, specifically ham sandwiches, rather than contraband imports of wild boar carcasses from Africa used for fake Ibericco ham, $10 per sliver with a glass of phony Rioja from Algeria at your fav Barcelona tapas bar.
- Cuban Intervention: In 1971 the ASF virus erupted in Castro's Cuba killing a half-million hogs, which resulted in the creation of beef black-bean soup, which soon became a Kosher favorite in New York City and Miami. The Soviet authority plausibly accused the CIA of biological warfare, even though the culprit was probably Che Guevara and his adventuresome pals in the jungles of the Congo organizing the local Simbas (Young Lions) into a cigar-chomping band of revolucionarios, stringing up Cuban-style chorizos after a warthog hunt. (Now you're asking: Is pepperoni safe on pizza? Short answer: if you don't mind indigestion and bad breath.)
- Georgia: No, not hot links, but the Land of Souzi Stew (rhymes with Suzy Q) and Rachuli bacon with tomatoes, between the Black Sea and the Caucasus, where Piggy Lee sings: "You give me Fever in morning and all through the night."
- Chechnya: The Georgians supplied car bombs to the Chechen separatists, so what? Biological warfare with sausage meat. This gets to be something like those Syrian nerve gas claims, since the only people who relish pork in jihadist country are Russian Spetsnaz snipers, there's no collateral damage. Then, the blowback is that the pig virus is on a roil in every direction, into Romania, Bulgaria and, ultimate destination Russia, and then finally today, biological H-bombs dropped on Pork Nation with the Year of the Pig coming up soon.
Forecast for the Hog Season:
Lunar New Year of the wood Pig with strong water characteristics starts on February 15. That's enough bad news, and there's a gentler kinder moral to this story. I once worked on a huge pig farm in central Indiana, where I tossed heavy shovel loads of corn from the back of a truck, shoveled their swill into drain trenches and stuck syringes of antibiotics directly into piglets' stomachs. Pigs are social animals, smart, persistent, mother oriented, just like humans, a scary thought indeed now that the planet is getting crowded. What are we going to do with all the two-legged porkers when they wake up to the game? The grown male tusks, called tushes, can rip open your leg and spine if you're so careless to turn your back on a huge hog. They have darned good reason to hate us. Don't worry about the Planet of the Apes when the boars of Fukushima will soon be as big as rhinos.
Despite all the injections, one of the runts fell sick with flu and so I took him back to my old run-down farmhouse to nurse him back, but after a few joyful days of living like a pet puppy, he died and so I buried him under a patch of flowers. Other than barbecued ribs on the Fourth of July, I'm not keen on pork or all the GMO corn and soy grown on former forestland to fatten them up.
Decades later, in the mountains outside Tokyo, I heard some squealing and opened the front door to see a tiny wild boar with only three legs. His left rear limb had been blown off by a big firecracker to chase him away from a neighbor's garden. I tossed over an ear of corn, but he wasn't hungry, just in need of a little sympathy. So today the pigs may be sickly but we humans are pathological voracious ogres, self-doomed by greed and gluttony, and a far cry from the meadows and forests of the natural world that once was our legacy to protect and care for. And meanwhile the virus as silent and inscrutable as the Sphinx is ticking down like a time bomb to the moment of reckoning.
Yoichi Shimatsu, science journalist and former newspaper editor, led a volunteer team of microbiologists and herbal research doctors to successfully stop SARS and avian influenza in Hong Kong and Thailand, with natural remedies and low-tech defenses in constrast with the idle promises from the trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry.