What The U.S. Can Learn From China’s River Of Dead Pigs

As of Friday, Chinese officials have pulled 8,354 rotting pig carcasses out of the Huangpu River, eliciting fears of contamination of one of Shanghai’s major water sources. The cause of this dead pig flood is still a mystery, but many of the pigs have tested positive for a porcine circovirus, which does not affect humans. It seems likely that farmers upriver dumped the pigs in the river after they fell ill or died.

China has been cracking down on sick pigs in the food supply since two massively destructive outbreaks of diseased pork put the nation on alert. Farmers will sometimes sell diseased pigs to the black market in order to recoup some of their losses. On Wednesday, 46 men were jailed for selling diseased meat. This is far from rare; as the New York Times documents, 17 people were sent to prison in December for processing and selling meat from roughly 77,000 diseased pigs. In May, 4 others were arrested for selling dead pigs to slaughterhouses.

If farmers did indeed dump the sick pigs in the river, they may have been trying to avoid similar fates. While the dead pigs do not seem to pose a serious threat to the drinking water, they may indicate China’s food safety crackdown needs redirection. The sheer number of pigs suggests they were suffering from an epidemic. Since China has no system to compensate farmers for losses from disease, they are left to cope with the aftermath in whatever way they can afford:

“There is no mechanism by which, whenever diseases are found among pigs, the government compensates pig breeders so as to control the spread of diseases or compensate pig breeders for losses,” said Feng Yonghui, general manager at pig-industry research organization

To make matters worse, Feng said insurance companies were unwilling to insure pig breeders because the risks were so high.

While authorities have not confirmed a disease, or the death of unusually large numbers of pigs, talk of pigs dying would seem to suggest an outbreak of some sort.

One farmer in the Jiaxing area near Shanghai, 69-year-old Jiang Lie, said about 30 percent of his pigs had died of disease since January.

Reuters witnesses visited three reeking swine disposal pits in Jiaxing which appeared to have been just filled up and had signs saying they were at capacity.

In order to avoid such conditions, the U.S. established a Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) that compensates farmers if their livestock falls prey to disease or extreme weather. The program is meant to encourage farmers to report diseases to the government rather than try to pass sick animals off as healthy. Payments range from $1 for a dead duckling to $1,000 for a dead dairy bull, at 65 percent of the market rate.

However, since the 2008 Farm Bill expired, LIP and 4 other farmer compensation programs ceased to exist after October 1. Farmers who lost livestock to Hurricane Sandy at the end of October were simply instructed by the USDA to keep good records of the losses in case disaster relief funding became available. The memo states, “Production losses due to disasters occurring after Sept. 30, 2011, are not eligible for disaster program coverage.” The Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill included these programs, but the House’s refusal to pass the bill stymied renewal. The so-called fiscal cliff deal passed in January temporarily funded some livestock assistance programs for nine months, but efforts to secure this safety net through 2018 have stalled.

Conservatives attacked the inclusion of the livestock compensation programs as “wasteful” and called for their complete elimination in the next Farm Bill. China provides a grim example of the kinds of tactics farmers may turn to if conservatives get their way.