Australia’s meat export trade could be shut down for years and rural communities will suffer if a lethal livestock disease enters Australia from Indonesia, with experts saying “the threat level has rapidly increased dramatically”.
Foot-and-mouth disease, a contagious viral disease for cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, resurfaced in Indonesia in May after the country had been declared free of it for over 30 years.
Dr Beth Cookson, Australia’s acting chief veterinary officer, confirmed foot and mouth had continued to spread within Indonesia, with 19 provinces reported to have cases of foot-and-mouth disease and more than 200,000 cases now recorded.
Andrew Henderson, the independent chair of the Safemeat Advisory Group and former adviser to the federal government on biosecurity, said “the proximity to our northern border means that the threat level has rapidly increased dramatically.”
Henderson said that while Australia was able to prevent the last outbreak in Indonesia in the 1980s from entering the country, the evolution of supply chains and massive expansion of tourism all make the risk greater this time.
Even before the outbreak in Indonesia, a group of experts led by Australia’s chief vet Dr Mark Schipp found last year that the risk of a major animal disease outbreak in Australia is increasingwith an estimated 42% probability the country will experience one in the next five years.
Cookson said that the same exercises were recently conducted to reassess the probability in light of the detection of foot-and-mouth as well as lumpy skin disease in Indonesia, and while the results are still being finalized “an increase in this estimated probability is anticipated. given the regional situation.”
Henderson said if the disease entered Australia, trading partners would be notified and the export market, which makes up 70% of the industry, would cease across the country, putting Australia out of international markets “for a couple of years at least” and costing the nation $80bn, according to Abares.
The policy for foot-and-mouth disease response across the country is guided by the AUSVETPLAN disease manual, which includes the “destruction of animals on infected premises and potentially on dangerous contact premises.”
The plan states that a restricted area of at least a three-kilometre radius is drawn around all infected properties.
Henderson said there are residual impacts on regional economies centered around red meat and livestock production, as well as the ramifications for the mental health and tourism in those communities.
Bonnie Skinner, the chief executive of Sheep Producers Australia, says rapid and reliable tracing of livestock is vital in emergency disease response: “the faster animals are traced the greater the chance of controlling the disease outbreak and minimizing its economic and social effects.”
However, exercises to test the traceability of sheep and goats in the event of a disease outbreak, known as Sheep Catcher IIshow results don’t meet benchmarks.
Current animal tracing systems are inconsistent. Electronic tagging is required nationally for cattle, but not for sheep and goats. The only state to mandate them for sheep and goats is Victoria, with other states still tracing through visual ID systems.
Dr Michelle Rodan, the chief veterinary officer for the WA Department of Primary Industries, said that mob-based visual ear-tag identification “does not meet nationally agreed performance standards for sheep and goat traceability.”
Skinner likens electronic identification to QR codes used during the Covid pandemic that enabled movement verification and contact tracing, with livestock able to be traced with greater efficiency and accuracy as they move through the supply chain compared with visual identification.
A Safemeat Advisory Group review in March 2020 recommended individual digital/electronic identification of all livestock to improve traceability.
But the extra cost for farmers of $1-$1.50 per tag has been a stumbling block.
“The thing I always talk to people about, that tag is like the type of an iceberg, and in behind that tag is a whole system that underpins trade,” Henderson said.
“And if you don’t have that system, you can’t trade and that trade underpins 70% of the value of everything that you produce on your farm.”
“If that [electronic tag] delivers you a vastly more effective system that protects your farm business, and provides a greater capacity to get Australian back into international markets quicker in the event of an outbreak, then it’s a very small price to pay for a lot of benefit,” Henderson said .
South Australia has funded a $140,000 evaluation of the benefits, costs and risks for implementing sheep eID tags. And Tasmania is also looking at the issue. A Biosecurity Queensland spokesperson said: “Queensland supports a nationally consistent approach to traceability.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture said the National Biosecurity Committee was currently finalizing options to strengthen Australia’s livestock traceability arrangements for consideration by agriculture ministers, “having regard to the recommendations made by Safemeat and other parties.”
“Implementation arrangements for any agreed reforms will need to be worked through closely with governments and affected industry parties,” the spokesperson said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism