March 6, 2019 / 5:46 PM / 20 days ago

U.S. bolsters 'Beagle Brigade' to sniff out deadly hog virus

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. government will employ more dogs to sniff out illegal pork products at airports and seaports in an effort to keep out a contagious hog disease that has spread across Asia and Europe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Pigs are seen on a pig farm in Rabacsecseny, Hungary, May 31, 2018. Picture taken May 31, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo - RC16668124D0

The disease, African swine fever, can kill hogs in just two days, but is not harmful to people. China, home to the world’s largest hog herd, has reported more than 100 cases of the disease in 27 provinces and regions since August. Efforts to contain the fever have disrupted Chinese pork supplies.

U.S. officials decided to ramp up their fight to avoid the virus after Vietnam confirmed its first cases last month, said Greg Ibach, USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

They will add 60 beagle teams at key U.S. commercial ports, seaports and airports, for a total of 179 teams, to expand arrival screenings and check cargo for illegal pork products that can carry the virus, according to USDA. The agency will work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Beagles and beagle mixes are the preferred breed of dog for this kind of work because of their keen sense of smell and gentle disposition.

“They can detect those items that are prohibited from entering the United States when they walk around the airport doing their investigations with their noses,” Ibach said in a phone interview.

USDA, meat companies and farmers want to keep out African swine fever because U.S. cases would likely shut off export markets for American pork and make consumers cautious.

Chinese food products have been found to contain the virus in recent months, prompting Beijing to require that slaughterhouses sample batches for the disease.

USDA established its detector dog program, known as the “Beagle Brigade,” in 1984, with one beagle trained to sniff out plants and animal products at Los Angeles International Airport, according to Customs and Border Protection.

“Whether it’s meat products or fruit or any agricultural products, those beagles are going to find it,” said Paul Sundberg, executive director of the Swine Health Information Center.

USDA said it will also ensure that travelers who pose a risk of spreading the African swine fever virus receive extra inspections at ports of entry.

It will also ramp up inspections of U.S. facilities that feed garbage to livestock to ensure the waste is cooked properly to prevent potential disease spread.

Hogs can be infected by African swine fever by direct contact with infected pigs or by eating garbage containing meat products from infected pigs.

Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Rosalba O'Brien

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