By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS (Reuters) - France will ban imports of live pigs, pork-based byproducts and pig sperm from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Japan to protect against a virus that has killed millions of piglets in North America and Asia, a farm ministry official said on Friday.
The ban, which is due to be introduced on Saturday and does not include pork meat for human consumption, aims to ward off Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv), which has killed around 7 million young pigs since first identified in the United States almost a year ago.
The disease has reduced hog supplies in the United States and sent retail pork prices to record highs.
"This disease worries us because the economic consequences would be dramatic if it hit our farms, in Europe and notably in France," Jean-Luc Angot, deputy director general and chief veterinary officer at the French farm ministry, told Reuters.
"When you see the numbers, there is a reason to be worried. There are few diseases that have such a high mortality rate at such a large scale."
The ban would chiefly concern animal feed, with exports mainly coming from Canada, Angot said. He had no immediate estimate. EU sources said that to their knowledge there were no live U.S. pigs imported into the 28-member bloc.
Animal feed is suspected to have been a way the disease has been transmitted in the United States.
Blood products such as pig plasma are commonly used around the world in the diets of piglets after they have been weaned - a practice that can spread the disease, according to Bernard Vallat, head of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
GERMANS, DANES HOLD BACK
France's ban did not include pork meat and other products for human consumption, because the disease is not dangerous to humans, Angot said.
France is the first EU country to restrict imports of U.S. pigs. China, the world's No. 1 pork consumer, and Japan have already imposed "temporary restrictions" on U.S. pig imports until their ministries reach deals with the United States on testing animals, a trade group said.
Angot said he had presented the proposal to the European Commission at a meeting last month with experts from other EU member states but that the EU executive did not accept the idea of banning imports.
"It is a suspension while waiting for a European decision," he said, adding that he was confident an EU-wide move could be adopted due to the risks if the virus were to enter the bloc.
The Commission is due to discuss the virus threat with national experts on Tuesday, May 6.
The EU's top pork producer Germany did not plan any import ban before then, a spokesman for the agriculture ministry said.
"Germany plans no unilateral measures and will await the result of this meeting," he said.
Denmark said it was seeking answers from the United States to questions put forward by the European Commission. "We want to give the Americans a chance to answer and then take it from there," a spokesman from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said.
(This story corrects to show feed is suspected not definite means of transmission)
(Additional reporting by Teis Jensen in Copenhagen, Michael Hogan in Hamburg and Barbara Lewis in Brussels; Editing by Jane Baird and Mark Potter)