By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture within weeks will begin testing sick and dead pigs for a hog virus that has killed herds across Asia in an effort to minimize devastation if the disease enters the United States, the agency said on Thursday.
Increased testing aims to help U.S. officials detect cases of African swine fever quickly so they can contain the disease.
African swine fever kills almost all pigs infected, though it is not harmful to people. There is no vaccine or cure.
The disease has spread rapidly across China, the world's top pork producer, and in neighboring Vietnam the government said it will mobilize its military and police forces to combat an outbreak.
Cases in the United States would halt shipments in the $6.5 billion export market for American pork at a time when the industry is already facing retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and Mexico.
"An enhanced surveillance program will serve as an early warning system, helping us find any potential disease much more quickly," said Greg Ibach, the USDA's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.
The USDA will start testing pigs for African swine fever when it conduct routine tests for another hog disease, classical swine fever. Sick or dead pigs at slaughterhouses and those that are sent to veterinary diagnostic labs will included in the expanded testing, according to the agency.
Testing for African swine fever is important because its symptoms can resemble those for diseases already in the United States, such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, said Tom Burkgren, executive director for the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.
"That's a significant step for them to take that will certainly help discover that first case of ASF, if it happens, early on," Burkgren said.
The USDA said it also will work with state and federal officials to identify incidents involving sick or dead feral swine to determine if they should be tested for African swine fever.
The U.S. government previously increased screenings for illegal pork products at airports and cracked down on smuggling in an effort to keep out African swine fever.
Last week, the chief executive of Tyson Foods Inc said it was "very plausible" the disease could enter the United States because of its rapid spread across Asia.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)