UK pork faces export ban as swine fever spreads

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Britain's pig farmers are facing a new threat to their livelihood through export bans following a swine fever outbreak at farms in East Anglia.

Britain's pig farmers are facing a new threat to their livelihood through export bans following a swine fever outbreak at farms in East Anglia.

The Netherlands and Belgium said that they would not accept pigs from Britain after the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) put three farms, in Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk, under restriction orders to prevent the highly contagious disease - which poses no threat to humans - from spreading between herds.

The Maff has also ordered the slaughter of the 6,350 pigs on the three farms to stop the illness spreading. However, the incubation period of up to 10 days means that the success of the measures in stopping the outbreak will not be clear until next week.

If the moves fail, pig farmers who already face a struggle to stay solvent may face an export ban that could destroy their already weakened businesses. Any meat from infected or potentially contaminated pigs may not be sold, but must be destroyed.

East Anglia is crucial to the industry because it produces one-fifth of British pork. The affected holding in Norfolk is a breeding farm which supplied pigs to the farms in Essex and Suffolk. "This could have quite serious effects," said a spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), which represents the meat industry. "We export a total of about 200,000 tons of pig-related products, compared to 917,000 tons consumed inside the UK. Any ban on those exports could put farms out of business."

James Black, the vice-chairman of the National Pig Association, who farms in Suffolk, said: "Restrictions will have to be in place for weeks but my fear is that [the disease] may already have spread."

Mr Black added: "The other costs of staffing and overheads and cleaning, and the fact that the farm will be empty for weeks could be the last straw for some producers who are only just emerging from the last price crisis."

Pig farmers already face a financial crisis, believed to be one of the worst in living memory, because market prices have fallen below the cost of production. The MLC blames the collapse of the economy in Russia - previously a big importer - and in the Far East, which also bought British meat.

The MLC spokesman said: "The number of pig farms in the UK has been falling over the past two years because the market prices were below the price of production. There are 160,000 fewer breeding pigs in the past 18 months - it's now down to 550,000 across about 8,500 holdings."

Maff has imposed three-kilometre protection zones around the three infected farms, banning the transport of any pigs in or out of them.

Swine fever is a highly infectious viral disease which is lethal to pigs but harmless to humans. The last outbreak, in 1986, led to 10 confirmed cases of pigs that died directly from the disease, but 7,924 were killed as a precautionary measure.

Under EU regulations, all pigs on infected farms must be slaughtered and their carcasses destroyed. Compensation is paid at 50 per cent of the market value for infected animals and 100 per cent of market value for non-infected animals. Although Britain's last outbreak of CSF occurred, there were numerous outbreaks confirmed in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy in 1998.