(Bloomberg) -- They have floppy ears, waggy tails and inquisitive, wet noses -- and they are trying to protect a $23.4 billion industry from a deadly infection.
The U.S. government’s band of dogs, known as the Beagle Brigade, may draw smiles as they pad around airports, but their work is serious. By sniffing out banned food products in arriving shipments and luggage, they are important border guards as the American hog industry battles to keep out deadly African swine fever.
As the pig-killing disease spreads in China and Europe, the beagles have detected contraband from vacuum-packed sausages to pork fat smeared into a cookie tin, and even a roasted pig head -- all in a bid to keep out perilous products that could carry the virus, for which there is no vaccine.
Humans can’t be infected, but pig populations can be wiped out, as has happened in some parts of China. The U.S. has never had African swine fever, and it eradicated other major diseases, namely foot-and-mouth disease in 1929 and classical swine fever in 1978. Any sign of illness stateside could mean that pork buyers start banning American exports at a time when producers are already suffering from Chinese tariffs.
“If we get any of these three foreign-animal diseases, we will immediately have a shutdown in our trade,” said Dave Pyburn, senior vice president of science and technology at the National Pork Board. “It would be a wreck.”
The dogs work at dozens of ports of entry to the U.S. There are 108 on the job, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with more in training.
Sporting a navy vest emblazoned with the official seal of the customs agency, 5-year-old Jarvis is one of three currently on the lookout at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, snuffling around the carousels in baggage claim with his handler, Sarah Delzeit, an agriculture canine specialist with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Passengers snorted out by Jarvis and his colleagues are rarely punished, though some face fines if they’re caught lying. Meat products found by the dogs are incinerated to destroy pathogens, while produce and plants go into a grinder.
“We are trying to educate people,” Delzeit said. “We are not here to write tickets.”
As officials step up efforts to keep swine fever out, the spread of the virus in other parts of the world could open doors for U.S. exports. Things have gotten so bad in China that on Thursday American exporters reported the biggest weekly pork sales to the Asian country since February. China made the purchase despite its tariffs on U.S. shipments.
Hog futures in Chicago are heading for a third straight monthly gain on speculation that demand for U.S. exports will increase as other markets shut down.
That’s all good and well, but all bets are off if the beagles don’t do their job. Some analysts have even suggested that hog prices could see a historic collapse if swine fever were to enter the U.S. and lead to enough export bans.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation with this much risk” that could lead to either major gains or declines for the market, said Steve Meyer, an economist at consultant Kerns & Associates.
Food-touting travelers at airports aren’t the only point of vulnerability. There are studies that show the disease can be transmitted through grain used for animal feed, with one such case already discovered in China.
Still, industry leaders like Noel White, the chief executive officer of meat giant Tyson Foods Inc., say they’re working with the U.S. government to heighten security measures and keep swine fever out. And Delzeit is confident in the dogs.
Not only are they cute and friendly, she said, they have great noses.
“They’re bred to hunt,” she said. “We’re just teaching them to hunt something different.”
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