21 July, 2022
Foot and mouth disease fears
AS Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Murray Watt held face-to-face talks with his Indonesian counterparts in Jakarta last week, the phrase “Foot and Mouth Disease” (FMD) was on the lips of every livestock farming family across Australia.
Accompanied by Australia's Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Mark Schipp, National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simpson and other senior agricultural officials, the high-powered delegation were in Indonesia to assist our neighbour in containing the frightening, highly-contagious outbreak that has been sweeping across their country since May.
Late last week, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia, Senator Susan McDonald suggested suspending Bali flights or quarantining returning passengers and sending biosecurity and veterinary staff to Bali to help administer vaccines.
Producers have every reason to be worried about FMD getting into Australia, with University of Sydney’s Veterinary Public Health and Food Safety chair Professor Michael Ward, describing it as “the most feared livestock disease in the world”.
“It can cripple the livestock sector, cause immense animal suffering, destroy farming businesses nationwide, create world food insecurity and have massive trade impacts for Australia,” he said.
“It’s difficult to put a figure on the devastation an outbreak would cause, but our government is suggesting it would be in the vicinity of $80 billion – a hard number to imagine, but a few supporting industry statistics might make it a bit easier to grasp.
“Australia currently has a beef cattle herd of around 25.2 million head – 46.6 per cent of which live in Queensland – and a dairy herd of approximately 1.5 million.
We farm 66 million sheep, 2.4 million pigs and are the largest exporters (28,000 tons) of goat meat globally.”
A total of 434,000 people are employed on-farm, in processing and retail, across the red meat chain, producing 2.4 million tons of beef alone, which adds $20 billion annually to Australia's economy.
Latest available figures show that 5700 dairy farms employ 46,200 people and produce just under nine billion litres of milk each year, while $7.2 billion worth of sheep meat is grown on 17,700 Australian farms, the pork industry produces $5.2 billion worth of product and $145.5 million worth of goat meat is exported around the world.
“Ironically, FMD does not infect humans, and meat and milk from infected livestock would be considered safe to consume, but that won't help because FMD free countries would not buy disease-comprised product from Australia for fear of importing the disease,” Professor Ward said.
“What makes FMD virus so remarkable is its environmental resistance,” he said.
“It can persist on many inanimate objects, such as equipment used with livestock, people’s clothing and shoes, on the tyres of vehicles and in livestock transport.
“It can also persist in livestock feed and livestock products, such as meat and hides.
It can even remain infectious on the hands and within noses of those in contact with infected livestock, so everything associated with infected livestock can become contaminated, giving FMD a plethora of incursion pathways.”
With the disease now in Bali, authorities are fearful it will get into Australia due to the 1.4 million Australians who visit the Indonesian destination annually, with no quarantine or RT-PCR testing required.
“All it would take is for just one of those 1.4 million tourists who had come into contact with Indonesian livestock to neglect to shower, wash their clothing and footwear, blow their nose or declare their activities and Australian agriculture could be compromised,” Professor Ward said.
“When responding to an FMD incursion in developed countries such as Australia, the goal is eradication.
Based on the economic impacts of the disease, it’s less costly in the long run to eradicate than to live with the disease.
“We haven't had FMD on our doorstep since the 1980s and Australia hasn't suffered even a minor outbreak since 1872, but the world will never forget the apocalyptic images of 6.5 million cattle carcasses being burned in Britain in the 20th century's worst outbreak in 1967-68.”
He said while vaccinating susceptible livestock was one potential weapon, the vaccine would need to match closely with the strain causing FMD and it would be purely a containment exercise, necessitating all vaccinated animals to still be destroyed eventually.
“Another problem is the host range of FMD. Besides managed livestock, in Australia FMD virus could infect feral pigs, feral goats and wild deer.
If Australia’s 25 million strong feral pig population became infected, its likely we could never eradicate FMD.
“Even if a country demonstrates that elimination has been successful, it still wouldn’t be able to trade again for many months, as its trading partners gradually responded.
This is why it’s so important to get on top of any incursion rapidly.”
Despite the fears being expressed throughout Australia, Agforce Queensland Cattle president and fourth generation grazier, Will Wilson, is urging livestock producers to “keep calm and farm”.
A self-described optimist, Mr Wilson said there were still plenty of positives in the current situation and a panic-fuelled selling frenzy would destroy the market, causing a similar price collapse as the actual arrival of the disease would do.
“Yes, the Indonesian outbreak is concerning, but FMD has occurred around the world, most commonly in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.
This is nothing new, FMD has been endemic in the Philippines since 1994,” he said.
Australia's FMD outbreak risk rating was 18 per cent before the Indonesian outbreak and that number hasn't changed.
Interestingly it stands well below the 42 per cent risk rating of a Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) incursion, which would wreak similar havoc and, being transmitted by biting insects, is harder to control.
“Covid, the varroa mite in honey bees and Japanese encephalitis in our pig herds have helped finetune our response systems for an FMD incursion.
It is our responsibility now to update our bio-security plans to protect our businesses.”
Mr Wilson said producers’ bio-security property plans could work to their advantage, allowing them to set conditions under which people enter their property, such as a minimum of 14 days after returning from overseas.
“This should give them time to blow their nose, have a shower and wash their clothes. Hats can be as dangerous as shoes as carriers and the disease can survive for long periods in caked on mud on shoes, even if they have been through a foot bath,” Mr Wilson said.
“Now would be a good time for people without a functioning biosecurity system to have a think about what that could cost them.”
Advice to travellers
With Lumpy Skin Disease and Foot and Mouth Disease on Australia’s doorstep, Member for Kennedy Bob Katter sought a briefing from the Federal Department of Agriculture this week regarding biosecurity prevention efforts.
Mr Katter shared feedback from representatives of the region’s livestock industry with Minister for Agriculture and Department of Agriculture Murray Watt for consideration.
Suggestions included working with Indonesian counterparts to prioritise vaccinations in areas of high tourism; mandatory bag searches for all returning passengers; foot baths upon arrival; an updated declaration card featuring the question “Have you been in Bali in the last six months?” and an on-farm ban period of two weeks upon return from infected areas.
“I’ve spoken to graziers and industry association representatives to understand what it is that they need from government.
They all agree that biosecurity efforts need to be ramped up at all airports with returning passengers from Indonesia,” he said.
“The local industry understands the impact travel bans may have on trade relations, but most were supportive of increased presence at all airports receiving passengers from Indonesia and Bali, not just at Cairns and Darwin as it is currently.”
Travel Experience Atherton and Mareeba managing director Uli Lenitschek has added her voice to the discussion, asking travellers to do the right thing on re-entry into Australia.
“While it’s probably best to avoid contact with farms whenever possible, it is important to do a few simple things before departing Bali and arriving back in Australia – have a shower, launder any clothing worn as soon as possible, blow your nose and leave your boots in Bali,” she said.
“And remember, you will not be penalised for ticking the box acknowledging contact with livestock -you will be leading the way and doing the right thing for your country.
Checking for soil doesn't take custom officers long and you will be clear in no time.
Millions of Australian animals will thank you for it.”