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For the first time ever, meat infected by African swine fever virus was discovered in the United Kingdom.
The ASF virus was detected in meat seized by port authorities in Northern Ireland.
The virus, thankfully, was only detected in processed meat — if transmitted into live pigs, the consequences could be devastating.
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Illegal meat confiscation
Officials confiscated over 300kg of illegal meat and dairy products from the luggage of airport passengers in June. Some samples of the seized meat were tested by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast — these confirmed traces of the virus were present.
The ASF virus can live in processed meats for months and scientists say it would have 'devastating implications' if transmitted by live pigs, The Guardian reports.
No significant threat
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs does say that the discovery of “DNA fragments” of the virus does not constitute a significant health threat to Northern Ireland’s animals.
It also doesn't affect the country's "disease-free status."
However, the discovery does highlight the ease with which certain illegal products could be mishandled, leading to a devastating outbreak.
Zoe Davies of the National Pig Association highlighted this problem to The Guardian:
“We have always maintained that the biggest threat to the UK pig herd is from infected meat products that are illegally brought in from infected regions that then find their way into the UK pig herd or feral boar population.”
Davies suggests that for all we know the virus might currently be present in illegal meat products throughout the UK. She emphasized the need for stronger border checks.
While the virus is harmless to human beings, some scientists have suggested that the physiological similarities between pigs and humans mean that it isn't beyond the realms of possibilities that it could actually mutate and become a threat to us.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently revealed that it would bolster its ASF controls at ports and airports and start awareness poster campaigns at borders.
There are almost 6,000 ASF outbreaks currently worldwide, the World Organisation for Animal Health reports. China, in particular, is struggling with outbreaks.
The most recent cases in China were reported in September in a Chinese slaughterhouse in Hohhot, Mongolia. As CNN reports, the country has culled nearly 40,000 pigs in response to the outbreaks — figures taken from the World Organisation for Animal Health's database.
Spread across Western Europe
The ASF virus is also spreading across Europe, causing alarm in several nations ever since the disease was detected in Belgium last year. The Danish government is even building a wall to prevent the virus from reaching them via wild boars from Germany.
Though the virus itself can't make us ill, it can have a devastating impact on our food supply, with a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization saying that ASF poses a “serious threat to food security.”