African swine fever coverage: Minimizing panic, identifying lapses
THE DEPARTMENT of Agriculture (DA) confirmed on September 9 that African swine fever (ASF) is in the country. Pigs had been reported dying of then unknown causes, some dumped in major waterways like the Marikina River. Cases of ASF have been reported in 12 areas in Bulacan, Rizal and Quezon City.
As the demand for pork increases with the coming Christmas holidays, media reports commendably refrained from sensationalizing the development and have countered the panic in the market with necessary information.
CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, CNN Philippines’ News Night and TV5’s Aksyon) and selected online news sites from September 1 to 24.
Facts about ASF
Following the DA’s announcement, the Inquirer, Rappler and Aksyon were quick to provide explainers and fact sheets. They reported ASF symptoms and modes of transmission, pointing out that it only affects pigs, but humans who come in contact with infected animals can transmit the disease to other pigs. Media also quoted the assurances of the Department of Health and government veterinary offices that as long as it is prepared properly, pork is safe to eat.
Journalists referred to the DA as their primary source of information, reporting the agency’s reminders that hog farmers should coordinate with them regarding sudden, abnormal swine deaths as well as suspected illnesses. Reports instructed all concerned about the protocols for culling and transporting hogs, and the proper ways of disposing dead pigs.
The Bureau of Customs was curiously absent in the coverage, considering its responsibility in screening what pork products enter the country. Some reports did mention the confiscation of pork shipments and other precautionary measures being taken by some port authorities in the Visayas and Mindanao.
Tracking the source
As the crisis affects a PHP200-billion industry, there should be some attempt to establish what lapse, if any, has caused the spread of the virus.
Commendably, the coverage did not dwell on political accountability, tracking instead the probable sources of the disease. Some reports referred to reminders of the DA and the Bureau of Animal Industry to refrain from swill feeding, the practice of feeding pigs food scraps and waste, as this is one of the most common means of transmission.
The Inquirer reported that swill feeding has been banned in the European Union since 2001, when it was identified to be the cause of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The report also cited a bulletin from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) that urged governments to enhance sanitary measures on the disposal of food waste crossing national boundaries by air or sea. Rosendo So, president of the agribusiness coalition Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (SINAG), said the government has no clear policy on the use of untreated swill as hog feed.
24 Oras called particular attention to food waste from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and delivered to Payatas in Quezon City, where it is sorted and packaged for sale to backyard hog raisers. Payatas is one of the barangays affected by ASF. The report added that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is now coordinating with the NAIA management to implement proper waste treatment and disposal.
Could the spread of the virus have been prevented?
Mark Dia, Global Farming Director of the World Animal Protection, called out the lack of transparency on the part of the DA. Broadcast reports aired clips of Dia in a September 23 forum, during which he said the disease had been in circulation for two months. Dia said the spread of the disease could have been prevented had the DA informed the hog industry and provided them with guidelines before the outbreak. TV Patrol and Aksyon confirmed this information by checking the report DA submitted to the OIE.
More than the effects of the disease on pork sales and consumption, the coverage has to focus on assistance to the pig farmers who have been hit hardest by the crisis. As efforts to contain the disease continue, the ASF outbreak calls attention to the need for coordinated response among relevant agencies and stakeholders, as well as long-term strategies to eradicate the disease.