Agricultural slog: keeping foot-and-mouth disease out of Australia

Australia is ramping up its biosecurity measures after the discovery of foot-and-mouth disease virus fragments (FMD, or FMDV) in imported meat.

FMD is a highly contagious virus disease of cloven-hoofed animals. It’s considered one of the most serious livestock diseases and affects domesticated animals including cattle, sheep and pigs (but not horses, and it poses no threat to human health). Australia is free from FMD – the most recent outbreak here was in the 1870s.

The federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry website states that an FMD outbreak in Australia could have devastating consequences through lost production, trade and tourism. A 2013 Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) report estimated an FMD outbreak would result in direct economic losses ranging up to $52 billion over 10 years to the livestock and meat processing sector, largely due to lost export market access. A 2022 update to this estimate suggests the impact would now be around $80 billion.

Last Thursday, Adelaide Airport biosecurity testing detected FMD fragments in an undeclared beef product brought in by a passenger from Indonesia. While these are just pieces of the virus that cannot transmit the disease, the detection shows that foot-and-mouth is circulating outside Australia.

A day earlier traces were also detected in imported pork products in Melbourne’s CBD and authorities have issued an urgent recall on these products, despite no risk to human health, because there is concern that the products could find their way to livestock.

FMD has been active in Indonesia since May – the first outbreak there in about 40 years – and the virus has since spread to Bali, which is back on many Australians’ travel list. Travellers returning from Bali could unwittingly carry the virus on shoes or clothing.

University of Queensland professor Tim Mahoney, from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation underlined the seriousness of the situation in an Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) Expert Reaction.

“Foot and mouth disease virus represents one of the highest threats to Australia’s livestock industries, particularly those involving cattle, pigs and sheep,” he said.

For now, authorities are acting swiftly, but upholding the old adage, “be alert, but not alarmed”.

In addition to Australia’s strict biosecurity measures that require incoming travellers to declare food and other goods, travellers arriving from Indonesia will be required to use foot mats containing citric acid to clean their shoes, hopefully dislodging potential virus-carrying dirt. The treatment is no risk to human health.

Researchers agree this is the right approach. 

Biosecurity expert Deborah Evans, from Edith Cowan University, told the AusSMC: “Australians should feel confident the government and biosecurity community are acting appropriately, taking the necessary steps and measures both pre-border (ie, outside of Australia) and at the border to prevent the disease entering our country.”

But on-farm preparedness is equally important, Evans added.

“We urgently need to invest in post-border biosecurity and support our farmers and livestock producers to implement biosecurity practices,” she said.

“This is our golden hour of opportunity where we can provide resources and support to our farmers to help mitigate the risks and consequences of any outbreaks which may occur.”

Preparations for farmers include reviewing, amending or forming biosecurity procedures and practices so that if an outbreak were to occur, they are prepared to respond.

The Australian Government should provide financial support to help farmers with these preparations, Evans said: “Australian farmers cannot be expected to shoulder the financial burden of on-farm bio-preparedness alone.”

As the threat of FMD increases, Mahoney is hopeful that Australia’s experience with COVID-19 will help inform people to act before the threat reaches our shores.

“In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic has prepared Australia for FMDV,” he said.

“People are more aware of viruses, diagnostic assays, epidemiology, etc, and similar concepts will apply to controlling FMDV.”

“As with the pandemic all Australians have a role to play in minimising this threat.”

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