By Beting Laygo Dolor
Contributing Editor

The spread of African Swine Fever (AFS) virus throughout the Philippines has caused consumers to avoid pork and pork-based products, crippling what had been a healthy and thriving PHP260-billion (about US$5 billion) industry.

From fresh markets to supermarkets and from fastfood restaurants to small entrepreneurs specializing in pork barbecue on a stick, business has been bad of late as Filipino consumers have been too scared to eat any kind of food with pork as an ingredient.

The Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) under the Department of Agriculture conducted tests in the last couple of weeks and discovered the worst last week: pigs in Metro Manila backyard farms had been infected.

Previously, ASF was discovered in the provinces of Bulacan and Rizal just outside Metro Manila. The disease has no known cure and is highly contagious.

It is believed that the pigs from Metro Manila were infected from the carcasses thrown by Rizal hog raisers to the Pasig River.

Agriculture Sec. William Dar asked backyard hog raisers to report cases of ASF. He, however, refused to say that there was a nationwide ASF epidemic. Owners of infected hogs are granted compensation of PHP3,000 (US$60) per head by the Agriculture department.

Dar said, “ASF was already contained in Barangay Pritil, Guiguinto, Bulacan and in several barangays in Rodriguez, San Mateo, and Antipolo, Rizal – and not in the entire country.”

BAI OIC Ronnie Domingo said that by the World Organization for Animal Health’s definition, only Rizal and Bulacan can be considered as “areas of outbreak.” But this was shortly before confirmation that hogs in Metro Manila had already been affected.

The Philippine Association of Meat Processors, Inc. (PAMPI) admitted that some of their members had decided to scale down their output in view of the depressed business environment brought about by consumers’ ASF fears.

The fears may be valid. A Filipino who went abroad last June and brought home cans of luncheon meat. The processed pork product tested positive for ASF.

Since there is no way of finding out if cans of luncheon meat are positive for ASF unless they are opened and tested, sales of the popular product — from US-made Spam to China-made Ma-Ling to locally-made Purefoods luncheon meat – have been depressed since news of the ASF spread.

Meat processors estimate losses of up to PHP30 billion (US$600 million) this year.

PAMPI called out the “extreme” steps taken by some provinces in blocking the entry of live hogs or even pork products into their territory.

A small-scale entrepreneur in Makati City who sells barbecued pork every day told the FilAm Star that his sales had gone down by “more than half” since the news spread. On the plus side, his sales of barbecued chicken and bangus (milkfish) were “very good,” he added.

He said he would not buy pork for the meantime and sell his remaining stock at discounted prices.

While there are numerous commercial hog farms in the country, with taipan Lucio Tan owning one of the biggest, an estimated 65 percent of hogs that are slaughtered for sale in public markets come from backyard farms.

Filipinos are the 10th largest pork consumers in the world and the Philippines is the seventh biggest importer of pork products.

Pork is the main ingredient in the national dish adobo, which is pork cutlets stewed in vinegar and soy sauce, with peppercorns and laurel leaves.

During the Christmas season, ham is a traditional part of the festivities and is a must during Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve dinners for Filipino families.

Pork infected with ASF is considered safe for human consumption if it is properly cooked at a temperature of 60 degrees Centigrade for at least 30 minutes. But Filipino consumers generally shun infected pork products.