A Cook's Diary

Lechon, ham and Noche Buena

(Today’s column)

I’m wondering how the scare over the discovery of Ebola-Reston Virus among hogs raised in the Philippines will affect the tradition of many families in serving lechon, ham and other pork dishes and delicacies traditionally associated with the Noche Buena. The smart thing to do before making any decisions is, of course, to understand what the Ebola-Reston Virus is, whether it poses a threat to humans who eat meat from infected pigs and what the significance is of its recent discovery in hogs.

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While the term Ebola-Reston Virus may sound new to many, it was actually discovered over a decade ago, the fourth Ebola subtype and the most recently identified. Monkeys exported to the United States by Ferlite Farms in the Philippines were found infected and subsequent tests proved that some animal handlers contracted the virus. Investigations conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the monkeys, flown via KLM from Manila through Amsterdam to New York then transported by truck to Hazleton Research Products’ Reston Primate Quarantine Unit in Reston, Virginia, were probably infected during transit.

Some of the monkeys died following illness characterized by anorexia and lethargy although it appears that these monkeys were also infected with Simian hemorrhagic fever virus (SHFV) and death could have been the result of complications from both diseases rather than the infection from the Ebola-Reston Virus alone. Infected humans, however, did not fall ill. In short, of the four Ebola subtypes, the Ebola-Reston is only mildly fatal to monkeys and non-fatal at all to humans.

(As a side note, in a beautifully written and photographed book published by CEMEX, data show that the Philippines is among the top countries where the threat of destruction of biodiversity is quite high. And it makes me wonder why a facility like Ferlite Farms had been exporting 1,500 monkeys to the United States annually and whether the exportation touches the biodiversity issue.)

In the case of the pigs, note that the Ebola-Reston Virus was not discovered in the Philippines but, rather, in meat samples sent to the United States for testing prior to the Philippines’ first venture in exporting pork. Note the suspicion of the CDC in the infected monkeys case that the animals caught the virus while in transit. As to how serious that suspicion was, “CDC updated and modified the mandatory disease-control requirements and other procedures used in the transportation and quarantine of nonhuman primates.”

Coupled with unassailable findings that the Ebola-Reston Virus poses no danger to humans, I now wonder if the international media coverage of the discovery of the virus in the hog meat samples was not, in fact, overblown. The effect of the mention of “Ebola” raises more than enough fears because the layman cannot but help associate it with the African strains that are fatal to both animals and humans. The emanating scare and controversy are of such proportions that the Philippines actually suspended the first ever pork export shipment.

Question: Are we stepping on some important toes with this venture on pork exportation?

Question: Was the controversy timed and couched to prevent or at least delay the entry of Philippine pork in the global market?

The Philippines is already the willing dumping ground of meat and poultry from rich countries. Australian and New Zealand lamb and beef; American beef, chicken, turkey and duck; wagyu and Kobe beef, whether genuine or fake. The government allows all these imported meats to enter the country as a consequence of trade agreements which can be lumped into one neat label called “globalization.” Yet, we had such a hard time exporting our poultry amid the bird flu issue. Now, it’s the Ebola-Reston Virus and our first venture at exporting our pork. What gives?

The truth is that I am no longer impressed with findings of supposed neutral bodies like the United Nations or any of its agencies. Just look at the power distribution within the United Nations and its sources of funding, and that should be enough to start asking whose values it promotes and how it sets priorities. In such a diverse world, only the dumb can think that humanitarian work is a black-and-white issue.

At the same time, I will be the first to admit that the Philippines is not big on the issue of food handling. One only has to take a peek at the conditions of wet markets and public slaughterhouses and that should be enough to raise serious concerns. If that’s how little we value food sanitation, who’s to say that those on the side of production have more concern?

Then, there’s the technology issue as well. Meat producers might want to give us and the world the cleanest and safest meat. But do they have the means to properly test their animals? Do they have sufficiently equipped laboratories and manpower to identify danger even before the animals are slaughtered? The fact that the Philippines has asked the assistance of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization with regard to the Ebola-Reston Virus issue should give us a good picture about our own capacity to impose and implement food sanitation.

So, are you still having the traditional Christmas ham for Noche Buena? We enjoy pork ham—local, of course— throughout the year although we hardly ever have the traditional Noche Buena.

References:

Ebola-Reston Virus Infection Among Quarantined Nonhuman Primates—Texas, 1996”, CDC Web site
Known Cases and Outbreaks of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever, in Chronological Order”, CDC Web site
Ebola Reston Outbreaks” Honors Thesis in the Standford University Web site
Reston ebolavirus” in Wikipedia

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