Now, 'Mad Pig' Disease

CHANG AH-CHIAN REALIZED HIS PIGS were sick when blood began to ooze from their snouts and hoofs. Within a day, 100 of his animals had died. "Those that survived were weak," says the Taiwanese farmer. Most of them perished when the disease struck again. That was March 16. In the days that followed, farmers across Taiwan began finding their hogs drooling and listless, spotted with blisters on their faces, legs and udders. The symptoms pointed to foot-and-mouth disease, a contagion deadly to cloven-hoofed mammals but harmless to humans. Some farmers notified the Council of Agriculture, a cabinet-level government agency. Others simply buried dead carcasses--and in one case dumped infected piglets into a river. By the time scientists confirmed the virus as foot-and-mouth disease, the epidemic had begun.

For Taiwan's government, it could turn out to be a "mad pig" crisis. The outbreak carries many of the same social, economic and political risks as Britain's "mad cow" fiasco, though without the threat to human life. In a country that has one pig for every two people, pork is a mainstay of the diet and a valuable export. The epidemic could cost Taiwan $3 billion in lost sales, eliminating 50,000 jobs and shaving half a point from the island's projected 1997 economic growth rate of about 6 percent. That could spell trouble for the ruling Kuomintang party in crucial local elections next December. President Lee Teng-hui assured consumers last week that local pork was safe and encouraged them to eat up. Concluding a visit to Taiwan, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, prayed for the souls of the dead pigs. "I hope everyone can get together," he told the faithful, "and pray for their transmigration."

It wasn't until several days after pigs began to die that the government admitted foot-and-mouth disease had broken out. It began airlifting vaccine from abroad and isolating tainted herds. That was too late. Japan shut the door on Taiwanese pork, halting a trade worth $1.5 billion a year. By the time Taipei got wise and closed local markets four days later, 355 farms were infected. By last weekend, the number had broken 1,000 and the army had begun to slaughter an estimated 1.6 million exposed hogs. Soldiers wearing biohazard suits zapped each animal with electrified metal hooks, then tossed the stunned beasts into incinerators or buried them alive in mass graves.

In Japan supermarket clerks pulled Taiwanese meat from the shelves, replacing it with American and Japanese products. It could be years before Taiwanese pork is back on Japan's menu. For exports to restart, the island must again eradicate foot-and-mouth disease, which had been stamped out there nearly 80 years ago.

Taiwan's leaders scrambled to restore public confidence. Government officials reportedly asked television stations to stop spoiling viewers' appetites with footage of the pig slaughter. Kuomintang legislators demanded that two or more pork dishes be served at all official banquets. But many consumers may take the advice offered by the departing Dalai Lama. He urged people to eat less meat.

Now, 'Mad Pig' Disease | News