Pig cull fails to bury burning questions

Editorial | Mary Ma 14 May 2019

As soon as it became clear the government was willing to compensate pork traders to the tune of millions of dollars to cover their losses, the culling of some 6,000 pigs stranded in the Sheung Shui Slaughterhouse without food for several days went ahead without further incidents.

The culling was ordered after the abattoir was declared an infected zone by the health authority following the discovery of an African swine fever case in a previous batch slaughtered there.

As far as compensation was concerned, the traders could rest assured, since the administration has demonstrated a history of willingness to pay more than generously to buy a truce.

Thus, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee agreed to pay the Hospital Authority HK$500 million to pacify doctors and nurses over staff shortages at public hospitals. So now she's resorting to a similar trick to placate pork traders.

The problem, however, is that money doesn't really solve the problem.

Hong Kong was indeed lucky to have its first case of African swine fever so many months after the disease became endemic in the mainland. Yet it can rest assured this wouldn't be the last. In wake of the epidemic up north, it is only a matter of time before the SAR sees its second and third cases, and so on.

What occurred over the weekend revealed the administration wasn't ready for the situation, reflecting a lack of communication between Chan's bureau and the trade, when the former should have had ample time to prepare for the outbreak of the first case.

The bureau should have sorted out the potential situation in advance, when the disease was still confined to the mainland. I couldn't convince myself the government had some contingency plans furnished with all the needed details - as it would have been expected to most of the time in the past.

The promise of cash compensation doesn't solve the problem because some questions have remained unanswered.

First, as what had happened, tests for the virus weren't speedy enough to prevent the affected batch from circulating in the market. The traders shouldn't be blamed for crying foul because it was the offal of a pig belonging to a previous batch found to be contaminated. How quick can the test be? Should the carcasses be held back until their test results are available?

That's a fundamental question.

Second, is it really necessary to cull every pig in the facility if only one is detected? If there is valid scientific evidence for doing so, a procedure has to be formalized and explained properly -- including the science involved -- not only to the industry, but the public too, as pork is probably the second most popular food stuff after rice here.

Third, government officials have to be wary of the butterfly effect that a suspension of pork supply would have on consumer prices in general, as demand for other foods are bound to increase as a result.

The incident at the Sheung Shui abattoir was minor, but serves as a sobering wake-up call.

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