Foot-and-mouth disease is a threat that demands more action for producers

If you are watching the current FMD threat and think your view is playing in slow motion – it isn’t – it’s the lack of real action that is relaying that feeling

The Federal Government has $80 billion of reasons to be far more proactive in arming local animal owners with basic information on FMD and doubling border forces and adding more precautions until any threat has passed

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is highly contagious and a deadly health threat to all split-hoofed animals including cattle, sheep, goats, camelids, deer and pigs.

And for whatever reason nature conjured up it spares fully-hoofed animals such as horses, alpacas, llamas and camels from contracting the disease.

The cost to primary industry for a multi-state outbreak of foot and mouth disease will have an estimated direct economic impact over 10 years of $80 billion with the beef industry hardest hit with a $53.7 billion loss while sheep meat producers would incur a $16.3 billion hit under the same scenario. Pork, wool and dairy make up the $10.0 billion balance.

The immediate call to action being made on this occasion is because the current outbreak in Indonesia is for a country that has been FMD free for almost 40 years and is too close of a neighbour for any sensible person to realise Australia needs to take immediate precautions.

It is already most likely too late to be certain the disease has not already been transported by a tourist or product from Indonesia. Just telling a tourist to wash their shoes and avoid visiting a farm for seven days is a pathetic lack of direction from basically no-one taking charge of this situation.

FMD is in both beef and dairy cattle farms across provinces from the north to south of Indonesia and an early estimate has found almost 4000 animals infected just a short trip from Australia

It appears our first line of defence is that Australia hasn’t had an FMD incident for over 100 years, and neither had Indonesia for almost 40 years until this current outbreak. Words will not be enough to keep the disease out of our country, even though to some that’s all we appear to have at the moment.

Once even one animal is infected, it is already too late as the FMD virus grows rapidly and should it arrive here our reputation as a clean of disease country is shattered. 

The fact we have avoided the disease for 100 years has now become our greatest weakness.

There is no protocol to fall back on, no-one in Australia has any real hands-on experience with FMD and you might notice that not one person has been put in charge of the situation.

Instead, the current Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt keeps referring to unknown unnamed public servants as the authorities behind the action required and source of his advice about the disease.

With no-one to lead the charge to stop the disease entering the country, one would hope that someone will be put in charge once the disease enters, and I doubt very much that Murray Watt will be given that role.

National Party and current Shadow Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud sees flaws in the FMD response to date

Where the political lever leans

With an opposition party such as the LNP previously very active in farming issues there wasn’t going to be anywhere for Labor to rest its head during this current FMD concern.

Initially, the early call came from leader of the National Party and current Shadow Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud when he clearly pointed out the threat that foot-and-mouth disease posed to Australian livestock is immense.

David Littleproud was the previous Federal Agriculture minister for five years and he called on current Agriculture minister for almost 2 months Murray Watt to take decisive action as far back as 11 July.

When the current Federal Agriculture minister Murray Watt announced on 15 July the government would provide $1.5 million to support Indonesia’s response to the recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), it stoked the fire for Leader of The Nationals, David Littleproud who had this to say, “Today’s biosecurity spending advice is not enough and has been too slow while the Government fails to mitigate risks at our ports.

“The Nationals have been calling for over a week for increased spending from the over $1.1 billion invested by the Coalition in biosecurity but this announcement does not look to accelerate traceability programs.

“Labor have been indecisive on tackling FMD which would cost Australia nearly as much as JobKeeper. 

Current Federal Agriculture minister Murray Watt is sorely under more pressure in his portfolio than he bargained for

“They have taken too long to reach out to Indonesia, too long to bring forward biosecurity spending and still cannot make their mind up on foot baths and mats.

David Littleproud renewed his call for stronger measures to protect Australia from FMD. “We had 16 flights arrive from Indonesia yesterday. Another 16 will arrive today.

“The Minister says FMD is a small risk. Yet the advice I was provided by the Department said there was an increase to 18% chance of transmission to Australia once FMD was in Bali.

“With nearly a one in five chance and this inadequate response, the Labor Government is rolling the dice on an $80 billion hit to our economy.

“We needed disinfectant foot baths at mats at airports last week, traceability grant funding brought forward, and we must get the livestock gene bank up and running.

“We must protect the future of Australia’s livestock and our regional communities,” David Littleproud emphasised.

Meanwhile, Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton observing the FMD ruckus from afar, and never one to duck a fight when his opposition is squirming, weighed in on the political bout FMD was stirring.

Peter Dutton claimed the Albanese government was playing with a loaded gun on the risk of foot and mouth disease.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Nationals leader David Littleproud backed calls to close the border with Indonesia

“I believe we should shut the border, but I think the prime minister needs to explain why that has not happened,” Peter Dutton retorted.

Current Labor Federal Agriculture minister Murray Watt hit back at the criticism and said, “If FMD was confirmed here all livestock movements would cease.

And added, “I’ve received no advice that border closure is necessary. I’ve asked about it regularly, several times a day over the last few days,” he added.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson a Curtin University affiliate and specialist in agribusiness and food supply chain systems takes a more sobering approach to the FMD threat

Outside politics are the risks viewed differently

For a more sobering point of view, we asked Dr Elizabeth Jackson a Curtin University affiliate and specialist in agribusiness and food supply chain systems for an opinion on the possible outcome should the disease surface here.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson offers timely advice and outlines the FMD risks:

As far as threats to food supply chains go, there is nothing quite so terrifying as the risk of a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) incursion. While the livelihoods of farmers are a central issue, so too is animal welfare and the essential services provided by transporters and meat processors.

In its simplest terms, risk analysis considers severity versus likelihood. The severity of an FMD disease incursion is unquestionably severe and provides a perfect explanation for farmers’ present anxiety about the disease.

The likelihood of an outbreak is still relatively low at nearly 12%, which is why many industry leaders are calling for calm over responses to the disease being present in one of our nearest neighbours and most popular tourist destinations, Bali.

Detailing the action required at this time to stop the disease entering the country

At present, FMD is not present in Australia so the general public can only closely follow government advice on activities like food product recalls and in-coming passenger regulations.

Farmers should have on-farm biosecurity protocols to protect their farm from any biosecurity threat, such as:

Government authorities have approached the threat in a number of ways: the strictest ever biosecurity measures on in-coming passengers from Indonesia, consultation with Indonesia authorities to manage the disease in-country and the donation of one million foot-and-mouth vaccinations to Indonesia as part of the disease management plan.

While the severity of a disease incursion is extreme, the likelihood of an incursion through disease pathways remains relatively low so border closures are not necessary.

Australia is unlike many countries that have FMD, in that our farming systems are extensive (no confinement over winter), our livestock are not in close proximity to the general public in highly populated cities and we do not have “right of access” laws that allow the general public onto farms. Our cattle industry is supported by traceability technology that will be critical in tracking and containing diseased animals should foot-and-mouth disease incursion occur.

Australian biosecurity protocols are the envy of the world and have been active for decades. Combined with our methods of livestock production and access to technology, the nation is doing everything it can to stop the disease entering the country.

Possible outcome should the disease surface here

In the event of an incursion, actions will be firmly in the hands of biosecurity and veterinary authorities and there will be no possibility of negotiation on the mandates that are issued to farmers, the livestock supply chain or the general public. 

In the short term, a lock-down of livestock movements will mean that no livestock travel move off farms.

Outcomes of this mandate will be that product flows into transporters and meat processors will be ceased. With meat processors currently losing about-$300 per head because of low livestock numbers to meet their margins, this disruption could be catastrophic for the essential “middle” of the supply chain so only the most resilient will survive.

Farmers will, of course, be negatively impacted, particularly those who rely on age-specific markets. For example, lamb could de-value into a hogget if it is not processed before 12 months of age or shows any permanent incisor teeth in wear. A ban on livestock movements could mean that livestock of a prime age cannot reach a meat processor before they pass the age definition threshold.

Dr Elizabeth Jackson a Curtin University affiliate has both a professional and personal interest in the FMD outcome

The longer-term effect will be the loss of Australia’s disease-free status, which will impact our ability to export both processed meat and live animals.

Australia’s status as a nation of disease-free livestock holds great value in international markets as it is a factor that contributes to the provision of high-quality, safe food and allows us to charge a premium for our livestock products.  It separates Australia from competitors in Africa and South America that are plagued with livestock diseases like foot-and-mouth, tuberculosis and brucellosis.

FMD-free status can be regained within three months of the last known case if we rapidly identify an incursion and eradicate it without using vaccine. That extends to six months if a vaccine is administered.

Experiences in the UK showed highly emotive photographs of animals being incinerated en masse. Animals that test positive for FMD in Australia will need to be humanely euthanised but the advent of traceability systems, like the National Livestock Identification System, mean that the disease can be contained quicker than ever before, thereby minimising the loss of livestock and maximising their welfare – in cattle and pigs (the system is not currently operational in sheep or goats).

While losses to livestock numbers due to testing positive to FMD are likely to be low, the livestock supply chain is right to be concerned about the impact of Australia’s disease free status on its export market.

Australia’s red meat industry, which excludes pork, poultry and fish products, is worth $28.5 million to the nation’s economy, it supports 80,000 businesses across the red meat supply chain and employs over 400,000 people.

Australia exports around 70% of its livestock (either processed or live) so in the absence of these markets, the domestic market will be grossly over-supplied with meat in the medium term and the industry will suffer catastrophically.

It is this over-supply of livestock that has the potential to result in the mass culling of animals; simply because they have no markets to fulfil until our disease-free status returns. The implications of this outcome on animal welfare, farmer well-being and the future of transporters and processors does not bear thinking about.

In the event that an FMD incursion transgresses into the long term and Australians are without domestic red meat and pork supply, it will be interesting to see what happens to consumer demand for substitute proteins like chicken and fish. It is likely that the price of these products will increase in the short term while buyers seek contracts for all types of meats from overseas. Dr Elizabeth Jackson concludes

First signs of FMD
No-one is currently offering a reward for the first livestock producer, meat handler or transporter that spots signs of the disease, but then very few know what to look out for anyway.

Signs that all is not well and that an animal may have contracted FMD can include:

  • blisters or ulceration where blisters have burst in and around the mouth, teats and feet
  • drooling
  • high temperature
  • reluctance to move or lame animals.

It is the responsibility for everyone that suspects a FMD case to report it.

People in northern Australia need to be particularly vigilant. Not only do they need to check their livestock but if signs are seen in feral pigs or water buffalo, immediate action needs to be taken.

Call the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888. They will provide you with advice on what you need to do next.

The Outbreak website also has advice on what to do if you suspect an emergency disease in your animals.

More FMD takeaways:

  • FMD virus is carried by live animals and in meat and dairy products, as well as in soil, bones, untreated hides, vehicles and equipment used with these animals. It can also be carried on people’s clothing and footwear.

It is critical that producers be aware of what Foot-and-mouth disease looks like and report any signs of the disease observed in their cloven-hoofed animals immediately to the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888 or their local veterinarian.