A disease that could potentially wipe out Australia’s multi-billion-dollar livestock industry has been detected at Australian airports.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said two detections of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) since December were confirmed by the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in meat products declared and seized at airports.
A third sample was deemed inconclusive among the more than 280 samples tested for FMD.
The pork jerky, sausages and other pork products were collected by Department of Agriculture staff between December 3-16 last year and from January 21-February 3 this year.
Fragments of the African Swine Fever (ASF) virus were also detected in the meat of six of the December samples and 40 of the 283 samples taken in 2019.
Mr Littleproud said FMD was “considered the biggest threat to Australia’s agriculture” and travellers that did not declare animal or plant products would face fines and possible court proceedings.
“I won’t tolerate travellers risking Australian farming,” Mr Littleproud said.
‘Canary in the coalmine’
The highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease can spread between animals by inhalation, ingestion, and direct contact with the disease.
Pigs, for example, which could be fed FMD-contaminated waste food in their trough — contaminated salami on discarded pizza, for instance — will likely become infected and infect others.
Biosecurity expert and Melbourne University professor Tom Kompas said an FMD outbreak could cost Australia’s livestock industries $40-60 billion.
“That’s the alarm bell, you know the canary in the coalmine warning,” Mr Kompas said.
“[If] borders close we can’t trade live animals, we can’t send meat products out of the country except to other countries that have FMD.”
Victoria’s chief vet Charles Milne described the detections as “really concerning, but not surprising”.
“The lesson there is that people must comply with quarantine requirements and that applies to everyone in the population,” he said.
“The consequences of one of these viruses getting through and infecting our livestock would be catastrophic.”
Dr Milne was involved in responding to FMD outbreaks in the United Kingdom before coming to work in Australia.
“The feeding of waste food to animals is illegal and it’s illegal because of the risks to the health of those industries is immense,” he said.
“In the UK in 2001, we had to slaughter six-and-a-half million animals as a consequence of someone doing exactly that, and in Australia it’s estimated the cost of something like that would be in excess of $50 billion.”
FMD in livestock and livestock products is not a threat to human health.
Calls for greater biosecurity investment
Australian remains free from FMD and ASF, but Victorian Farmers’ Federation president David Jochinke said the detections proved a greater investment was needed in biosecurity at all levels of government.
“The current penalties are no more than a slap on the wrist,” Mr Jochinke said.
Mr Kompas also called for greater funding.
“Budgets are being stretched and you’ll know when you go to the airport these days at international arrivals only a fraction of people are looked at,” Mr Kompas said.
“It is a trust or honour system. When you actually start checking people you find a lot of occurrences of things that shouldn’t come into Australia.”
“If it were me, I’d spend much more money trying to make sure things stay out because the potential for damages are huge.”