Farmers’ place within ASF preparedness

By Treena Hein

Canada’s African Swine Fever (ASF) Executive Management Board (EMB) is a large patchwork of national stakeholders aiming to defend the country from a disease incursion. For farmers, more localized, individual planning is necessary.

As everyone in the industry is well aware, activities to prevent African Swine Fever’s (ASF) entry into North America are currently heightened due to ASF detection in Haiti and its continuing spread in Thailand, Europe and elsewhere.

Should ASF be detected in North America, it is critical that Canadian hog farmers actively continue using the latest protocols to prevent the spread but also to prepare for what to do should ASF reach Canada, in terms of handling ‘stop movement’ orders and more.

Before we look at these protocols and what should be in every farmer’s ASF preparation plan, let us quickly look at the big picture. Christa Arsenault delivered a presentation during the second plenary session of the 2022 Banff Pork Seminar. She is the national ASF project manager with Animal Health Canada (AHC), formerly the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare (NFAHW) Council and the acting chair of Canada’s ASF Executive Management Board (EMB).

“EMB came to be in 2019 as a pilot project, and it has received funding from industry and government on an ongoing basis,” said Arsenault. “Its first task was to create the Pan-Canadian ASF Action Plan, which encompasses many working groups and initiatives, both national and provincial. Many lessons learned and honing of strategies has occurred through operation of the EMB, including the importance of improved coordination between all the pillars, working groups and sub-working groups.”

Activities related to ASF prevention and preparedness on Canada’s hog farms fall under all of the four pillars of the action plan. Pillar 1 is ‘Enhanced Biosecurity and Prevention’; Pillar 2 is ‘Preparedness and Planning’; Pillar 3 is ‘Ensuring Business Continuity’; and Pillar 4 is ‘Coordinated Risk Communication.’

The four pillars of the ASF EMB

Pillar 1 includes the ‘Biosecurity Working Group,’ which is developing a voluntary biosecurity standard and benchmarking tool for farmers. It should be ready later this year and will be available through the Canadian Pork Council (CPC). The standard’s co-creator, Egan Brockhoff, veterinary counselor for CPC, provided a preview of what producers can expect.

“There are four levels, and producers should examine each level to see which makes sense for their farms and surrounding circumstances,” said Brockhoff. “For many farms, Level 1 or 2 of the tool will be sufficient. Farms in an area with a lot of PRRS [porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome] should meet Level 3 standards, for example. Meeting Level 4 will allow you to protect against highly infectious, aerosolized, multi-species diseases with many contamination pathways. We are piloting the tool right now, and we are also updating the on-farm National Biosecurity Standard for swine.”

The National Biosecurity Standard for swine was developed in 2010 with the authority of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), one of the ASF EMB’s core partners. CFIA develops national biosecurity standards, protocols and strategies designed to protect farm animals, in collaboration with producer organizations, provincial governments and academia.

How do biosecurity standards currently factor into ASF planning at the farm level? Producer training and resources provide the answer.

Emergency preparedness on-farm

The Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) project hosts producer workshops, such as this one, during the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar. More recently, workshops have been held virtually.

Among other resources available from AHC is the ‘Animal Health Emergency Management Producer Handbook,’ an easy-to-navigate document developed as part of a suite of disease-related resources. This tool helps producers prepare for disease outbreaks, including ASF, and provides customized support for various stages of an outbreak. Mikki Shatosky, project operations manager with the Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) project, explained further.

“The resources in the handbook have been designed to help producers understand, prepare and respond to a disease emergency,” said Shatosky. “Our goal was to create a comprehensive support tool that would not only shed light on what can be expected during an outbreak but also guide producers as they develop and implement emergency management plans, policies and procedures.”

Shatosky noted that every producer’s situation is different and that many aspects of an incident response will vary from province to province and region to region. Circumstances also change over time, so it is important for all producers to regularly review and update their emergency plans.

“Prior to the [COVID-19] pandemic, we were in a steady rhythm of hosting workshops across Alberta to help pork producers prepare for an emergency, and our goal was to roll this out in other provinces,” said Shatosky. “Like so many others, we’ve now pivoted to offering virtual workshops that have been extremely well-received. In fact, since March 2020, we have held more than 25 online emergency preparedness webinars for various livestock commodity groups.”

The workshops help familiarize participants with available resources, while covering important topics such as biosecurity measures and ‘stop movement orders.’ Producers also benefit from a practical component that tests readiness with realistic scenario-based exercises.

The AHEM project is eager to eventually return to the in-person workshop experience, but in the meantime, the team is continuing to offer engaging up-skilling alternatives.

Plan not required, but recommended

The Canadian Pork Council (CPC) website includes ASF planning and preparedness resources for producers.

Hog farmers in Canada are not required at this time to have an emergency preparedness plan that addresses ASF or farm biosecurity in general. However, it is obviously strongly recommended.

“It would be great to have [a mandatory plan requirement], helpful for everyone, not just the farms, but today there is no program or legislative requirements,” said Gabriela Guigou, manager of the National Swine Health Initiative for CPC. “We are taking the lead to update the biosecurity standards and provide a benchmarking tool, and for the emergency preparedness plans, the provincial members are taking the lead.”

Producers are encouraged to contact their provincial pork boards for help creating emergency plans. You can get started by checking out the resources, including training videos, available on the CPC website and on the website of your respective provincial board.

As ASF emergency planning and preparedness continue to evolve, and as the threat of ASF grows stronger, producers must be proactive in taking care of their own operations, with support from their provincial and national boards, veterinarians and other experts. The time to protect your herd is now or never.