Over the summer, while the world was still battling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, a local police department in Taiwan seized 71 kilograms of smuggled meat products that were later confirmed to contain the African Swine Fever (ASF, 非洲豬瘟) virus. Taiwan authorities determined that this batch of smuggled meat products originated from Vietnam, and further confirmed that Chung Ho International Logistics Co., Ltd. (仲賀國際物流有限公司) was the culprit. Due to repeated violations of laws and regulations, the company’s customs declaration business license has been officially revoked. On October 5, two Vietnamese-heritage suspects in Taiwan who smuggled the meat products were prosecuted by the New Taipei District Prosecutor’s Office. According to Taiwan’s Statute for the Prevention and Control of Infectious Animal Diseases (動物傳染病防治條例), the illegal import of meat products could result in a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a fine of NTD $3 million (equivalent to USD $100,000).
Since the first outbreak of the African swine fever virus inside China in 2018, Taiwan and Japan have been the only two countries in Asia to successfully prevent the spread of the virus from different points of origin, and to avoid being labeled as an ASF-endemic area. The main reason that Taiwan has been able to avoid and stop the spread of ASF is because of its strict border controls. For imported goods, Taiwan’s Customs Administration (關務署) conducts thorough X-ray inspections; for passengers returning to Taiwan from the “African Swine Fever High-Risk Area” (非洲豬瘟高風險地區), the Ministry of Transportation, Aviation Police Department, and travel agencies work jointly to screen passengers at the border. Since December 2018, the Taiwan government has strengthened its ASF prevention measures at the cabinet-level and set up the “Central Emergency Operations Center for African Swine Fever”(非洲豬瘟中央災害應變中心), resulting in efficient prevention of the ASF virus from spreading to Taiwan.
A Bitter Past with Livestock Diseases
In 1997, Taiwan experienced an outbreak of Aphthous fever through the spreading of the foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV, 口蹄疫病毒). Since then, Taiwan-produced pork has not been an article of export, and overall industry losses have exceeded NTD $170 billion (equivalent to USD $6.1 billion). In June of last year, after 24 years, Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (農業委員會) announced that it would no longer administer foot-and-mouth vaccines to pigs. As long as there is no further outbreak at home, Taiwan’s pork could soon return to the world market.
However, the reappearance of ASF could present Taiwan with yet another crisis. If there is another outbreak of African swine fever in Taiwan, it could also damage the government’s efforts to prevent a resurgence of FMDV—and inhibit the reopening of exports to the international market, which would deal another significant blow to Taiwan’s pork industry. ASF is more dangerous than FMDV, because it can cause acute and malignant infectious diseases in both domestic pigs and wild boars. Due to the highly contagious nature of this virus, pigs of all breeds and ages may be infected. Since there is no vaccine for prevention and treatment, the mortality rate of infected pigs can potentially reach 100 percent.
On August 31, Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) declared a vow to “block the loopholes, [and] safeguard Taiwanese pork and the country for the people”(堵住破口，守住台灣豬肉，為國人把關). He further stated that Taiwan had done a great job defending against ASF for over two years, while neighboring countries have fallen victim to the virus. Only Taiwan and Japan continue to be safe. Therefore, Taiwan still has pork to eat, and related industries in the country are still in business.
Factors Contributing to the Spread of ASF Virus Entering Taiwan
Two main factors increase the risk of an ASF outbreak in Taiwan. The first one is that the Covid-19 pandemic changed methods of smuggling, which in turn increased the workload of the screeners at the border. During the pandemic, cargos with imported products have become the primary routes of smuggling. The increase in workload has made screenings difficult for Taiwan customs. For example, Taoyuan International Airport has four cargo warehouses (貨運倉儲); however, there has been a shortage of human resources in spite of the increase in workload. It is a challenge for customs to intercept smuggled meat products simply by relying on X-ray screenings. Quarantine dogs are the main force assisting the detection of meat products. However, there are not enough dogs and handlers to carry out the intensive detection work, as the dogs cannot work nonstop.
Another factor is that the rise in local pork meat prices has created an opportunity to smuggle cheaper meat products than domestic products. The demand for pork products has increased as well because of stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. The people of Taiwan prefer to purchase domestic pork products. However, pigs eat less during summer due to the rising temperature, and raising them is difficult due to the heat stress that pigs may easily have during summertime. The overall quantity of Taiwan’s pork production is relatively small compared to the demand. Consequently, the price of pork has increased.
According to the Council of Agriculture, the current pork market has been dominated by domestic pork, which accounts for 90 percent of the market; imported pork accounts for the remaining 10 percent. There are 6,759 pig farms in Taiwan, raising roughly 5.5 million pigs, and Taiwan has a self-sufficiency rate in pork production of 90 percent. The average price of pigs in Taiwan remains high, with prices reaching a high of NTD $89 per kilogram in August of this year. These high domestic pork prices give smuggled pork from other countries, such as Vietnam, a competitive price advantage—and provide an incentive for smuggling.
Because contaminated products have been distributed in Taiwan, the government has been developing strategies to stop domestic pigs from contracting the ASF virus. To reduce costs, Taiwan’s pig farmers often use food waste (廚餘) to feed their pigs. Since the incubation period of the ASF virus is 28 days, the Council of Agriculture announced a one-month “food waste ban” (廚餘禁令) in September, during which food waste is prohibited from being used as feed on pig farms. This ban was an essential first step to stem the flow of ASF at its point of origin.
In addition, the Central Emergency Operations Center for African Swine Fever has also strengthened various border prevention and quarantine methods through the inter-ministerial cooperation mechanism. Domestically, relevant ministries work together to trace and intercept various distribution channels such as wholesalers and retailers to mitigate possible infection risks. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (衛服部食藥署) and the Council of Agriculture announced that they will initiate market investigations to prevent the unlawful importation of meat products. In particular, Taiwan Customs has been conducting a 100-percent customs clearance inspection (百分之百查驗) policy on imported goods from Vietnam. A potential consequence of this effort is a longer waiting period for customs clearance from Vietnam compared to other countries. The Council of Agriculture has also offered a whistleblowing bonus (檢舉獎金): anyone who reports that pig farms use kitchen food waste to raise pigs will be eligible to receive up to NTD $1.2 million in whistleblowing bonuses.
At the borders, customs, airport police, and agricultural authorities have been thoroughly screening imported goods from Vietnamese flights and imported goods from other high-risk countries, including China. The Customs Administration has also strengthened the training of customs personnel, improved the “AI-assisted Meat Detection System” (AI輔助肉品查緝系統), and supported analysis of the declaration data of seized meat products and the interception of high-risk goods. The Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (動植物防疫檢疫局) has also taken an essential role in border control work, streamlining the joint effort to prevent illegal pork products from entering Taiwan.
Effective November 1, the Customs Administration will ban air-imported express goods (空運進口快遞貨物) from Vietnam and nine other countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, East Timor, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Bhutan) from being combined in packages (併袋) for more efficient customs clearance. Prior policy allowed for different goods to be combined in packages for faster X-ray screening; however, such combined packages are more difficult for Customs officers to inspect, especially for meat smuggling violations. A total ban on combining packages (全面取消併袋) will take effect next year.
Since the end of August, Taiwan has been vigilant in monitoring for possible outbreaks of the African Swine Fever virus. Taiwan’s government is diligently working with warehouse companies, farmers, and the general public through the Central Emergency Operation Center platform. For Taiwan, the upcoming months are considered a critical period for preventing ASF. How this battle plays out will directly impact Taiwan’s future, especially the nation’s agricultural economy and health in the long run. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan certainly does not want to repeat its experience with Aphthous fever. Preventing the ASF virus from spreading cannot be done solely by the government of Taiwan: it will require timely, joint efforts not only among the affected countries in the region, but also through greater international and regional cooperation with Taiwan.
The main point: Since August 2021, Taiwan has been on high alert since discovering a new case of African Swine Fever, and the government has activated a contingency plan. After the new case, Taiwan has effectively prevented smuggled meat products from being distributed in different channels across the country. However, the upcoming months are critical for controlling and preventing the further spread of the virus from different points of origin to Taiwan’s local pig farms.