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Is Ag Headed Toward “The Swine That Seized Summer”?

What the Industry Can Do to Prepare and Defend

To anyone working in the ag industry or who grew up on a farm, the date December 23, 2003, brings on a collective sigh as they remember the “cow that stole Christmas.” On that date, the news broke that a cow in Washington state was reported to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). This sent officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the beef industry and agricultural markets as a whole into a crazy tailspin — one that we’re still seeing ripple effects from some 15 years later.

What would happen if African swine fever (ASF), which is currently devastating China’s hog production, made its way into U.S. hog herds, possibly causing a “Swine That Seized Summer” scenario?

The short answer is that no one wants to find out, because it would be devastating. Though it doesn’t have any impact on humans, ASF is a highly contagious viral disease that affects pigs — both wild and domestic. It’s transmitted easily through direct and indirect contact, and the incubation time for the disease is between 5 and 21 days, which makes it difficult to eradicate once it appears.

Currently China, which accounts for about half of the world’s pork production, is getting pummeled by the disease. As of mid-April, ag financial experts at Rabobank estimated that out of approximately 400 million hogs in the country, nearly half — or 150-200 million — would need to be culled or would die from the disease. To put that number into perspective, U.S. hog populations are at about 115 million hogs.

ASF’s Impact on U.S. Farmers

The U.S. agricultural industry is holding its breath. It may potentially be a positive for the current hog export market as prices for pork belly increase, and the USDA anticipates a 41 percent increase in imports from China to help meet their needs. But it could be bad news for Chinese imports of U.S. soybeans. Add the challenges with Chinese trade tariffs and negotiations, and the industry is more than a little nervous. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the negatives should ASF enter the U.S.

Dr. Dermot Hayes, an economist at the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (CARD FAPRI) estimates an ASF outbreak in the U.S. would cause a year-one revenue loss of $13.5 billion that impacts the pork, corn and soybean markets. Compare that number to the BSE crisis where a Kansas State University study estimated the U.S. beef industry impact from the loss of beef exports during 2004 alone from $3.2 billion to $4.7 billion. That means the significant impact the BSE crisis caused would be a drop in the bucket compared to the devastation ASF could rip through the American economy.

What Can We Do?

So what can those in the industry do to help calm fears while we’re waiting it out? At the risk of oversimplifying a very complicated topic, we need to educate, develop a response plan and monitor diligently.

Educate

From individual producers and breeding facilities to processing plants and corporations, nearly every level of the industry has identified operations changes and protocols within their business to minimize the impact ASF will or can have to their day-to-day and long-term picture. But it’s not enough to just implement those changes. You must communicate them. Plan a steady stream of proactive communications to tell your target and influencer audiences exactly what you’re doing and why.

People want to know that you’re doing everything possible to minimize the impact an issue will have on them, so transparency and frequent communications are key. Identify your key messages, share them in a genuine, authentic voice, and develop an editorial calendar to keep you on track to send regular updates. If you need an example of an organization that’s doing it right, take a cue from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). They’ve done a great job of providing tools and recommended action plans for growers along with reasons for why they took significant precautionary measures like canceling the 2019 World Pork Expo.

Develop a Response Plan

We all know that bad things happen. Despite all the fail-safe actions we put into place, there is a chance that ASF could enter the U.S. and impact our hog production. Whether you own the first swine to be diagnosed or you provide supplies and medicines to the veterinarians who will be on the front lines, you need to be prepared for any and all potential scenarios. That’s why a crisis response plan should be developed before a crisis hits.

A crisis plan should have five parts:

  • Collaboration
  • Crisis identification and ranking
  • Guidelines/framework
  • Practical tests
  • Regular reviews/updates

It starts with collaboration. No one group or individual within a communications team should be solely responsible for developing the plan. All areas of an organization should be involved — from operations to human resources — to make sure all areas are represented and covered.

Crisis identification and ranking are next. The “cow that stole Christmas” crisis was intense but handled extremely well, because they had already thought through potential crisis scenarios when it was just a “what if” scenario. That means now is the time to list every potential challenge, disruption and hiccup that could happen, and determine how big of a risk it could be to your organization and the people you serve.

Then develop your crisis plan as a framework or guideline — not an exact prescription, but an outline of key considerations, approved spokespeople, general messaging, and processes to be followed. This document should underscore the importance of taking responsibility/action, communicating timely information in a genuine and transparent way, and including two-way communications vehicles (i.e., social media) as part of your communications approach.

Once you have a framework, test it out. Practice with a fake issue so you know what works and what doesn’t. Time is of the essence in a crisis, and nothing is ever perfect the first time you run through it. So don’t make the first time you do so be during an actual crisis.

When you have your plan nailed down, don’t put it on a shelf until you need it. Things are changing every day with ASF, and there will continue to be more developments. Stay on top of them and make sure you update your plan often — every 2 to 3 weeks if you need to for hot issues.

Monitor Diligently

Which leads us to monitoring. Make sure you monitor the situation closely. With social media, news spreads quickly and you need to be on top of it. Set up social listening, Google alerts and other news monitoring services so you can get key updates pushed to you as they happen.

Woodruff just gave you a lot of steps to complete at a time when your plate is already full. How are you going to get it all done? You don’t have to do it all. We can help — wherever and whenever you need us.

Or if you just want to stay up to date with the latest news in the ag space and how it may impact your short- or long-term business, keep checking out our blogs. We’ll be tracking ASF and will post more about this important issue as well as others.