FARMERS and Ag industry leaders are calling on both sides of politics to ditch “pointless point scoring” and cooperate to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease (FMD) from tourist hot-spot Bali, into Australia.

Indonesian authorities confirmed 63 cases of FMD in Balinese livestock on Tuesday this week, sending a “shiver up the spine of Australian farmers” according to National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson.

“Ever since FMD was detected in Bali our industry has been on edge given the growing volumes of traffic between our countries,” Simson said.

FMD isn’t a risk to humans but it’s one of the most serious and contagious livestock diseases, causing painful sores in cloven-hoofed animals including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

The viral disease spreads rapidly between animals and can be transmitted by their breath, saliva, milk and faeces.

Farmers fear tourists returning from Bali with contaminated clothing or products could trigger an Aussie outbreak.

The looming threat is Labor senator Murray Watt’s first big test as federal agriculture minister as ABARES modelling shows FMD cases in Australia could cost our economy up to $80 billion.

Within a day of being notified of the Bali cases, the Albanese government said it had ramped up biosecurity measures which built on protocols put in place when the Indonesian FMD outbreak was first detected in May this year.

“These existing strengthened measures include new targeted operations at major airports servicing travel from Indonesia to check a wider range of passengers who could be contaminated with FMD or be carrying contaminated goods and assessment of all passengers on flights from Indonesia, with high risk passengers identified for intervention,” Murray Watt said.

Detection dog Boris inspecting sausages, an FMD risk. IMAGE: DAF Media

New measures being taken or introduced include:

  • The location of biosecurity detector dogs in Darwin and Cairns Airports,
  • Additional signage and the distribution of flyers at major airports, informing travellers of FMD risk and precautions,
  • Expanded social media campaigns, informing travellers of their biosecurity responsibilities,
  • Additional training of airport biosecurity staff,
  • Enhancement of mail profiling and inspections, and
  • Additional measures, including boarding by biosecurity officers on arriving flights from Indonesia, will begin in coming days.

However Watt’s predecessor and Nationals leader David Littleproud was quick to criticise Labor’s response, issuing a press release and a series of posts on social media.

Tweet from David Littleproud on Thursday

“The Government has conceded that their proposal to increase the number of sniffer dogs at airports with incoming Indonesian flights cannnot actually directly detect FMD if attached on boots,” Littleproud said.

“There also remains a number of passengers who falsely declare or don’t declare all of their movements, while in Indonesia.

“The only way to effectively mitigate this vulnerability is to introduce disinfectant foot baths at airports.”

But that was criticism Murray Watt wasn’t going to cop, labelling Littleproud’s spray “total crap”.

He said he’d had Mr Littleproud briefed by the Ag department’s biosecurity team about all the measures being imposed, and that Littleproud had “chosen to lie about it”.

Tweet from Murray Watt on Thursday

The response from farmers and industry leaders on social media was swift too, with a tidal wave of calls for both sides of politics to work together to strengthen borders and “act without political point scoring”.

The CEO of the New South Wales Country Women’s Association Danica Leys went a step further, telling Littleproud to “step up, grow up and work together.”

“Both of them (Littleproud and Watt) have experience and between the two different sides, this is a time where some serious collaborative effort could actually result in a good outcome,” Leys told the Caller.

“Point scoring detracts from the issue at hand. It’s pointless and that’s not what we need at the moment.” 

Leys runs a mixed cropping and cattle operation west of Gunnedah in NSW and said all the livestock producers she’d spoken to were “on edge and really concerned”.

“Even for us as smaller operators, this threat would be completely devastating to our business,” Leys said.

“The minute FMD lands on our shores it affects us financially. It affects the entire beef industry, that’s when we lose our FMD-free status and prices go through the floor.”

Danica Leys with some of her cattle in NSW. IMAGE: Supplied

Leys said both the federal Ag minister and his shadow counterpart were “slow to respond” to news FMD had been detected in Bali, and that industry had been hearing about the outbreak for days before anything official was issued by the Australian government.

“People are concerned and they’re seeking reassurances that appropriate steps-up in biosecurity controls are being taken by the Australian government,” she said.

“It’s not just the actual response, it’s the communication around it.

“I would have expected to receive it (advice) directly from the levy paying bodies that I pay money to and I haven’t received anything as yet.

“There is good information out there around what producers can be doing – but a lot of it is very general in nature and you have to go and proactively search for it. 

“What we’re needing is that very specific advice, on what we should be doing right now.” 

Murray Watt on Thursday’s virtual meeting about FMD risks. IMAGE: @MurrayWatt on Twitter

Minister Watt (pictured above) convened a virtual meeting of almost 80 farming and biosecurity leaders on Thursday afternoon.

“Separately, I was also briefed from some of Australia’s leading biosecurity experts, including from CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis and Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Mark Schipp,” Watt said.

“At both briefings, I received valuable feedback and suggestions for additional measures and am now seeking departmental advice on them.”

NFF President Fiona Simson said this threat, as well as the recent incursion of varroa mite in NSW, “highlights our call for a long-term, sustainable biosecurity funding pipeline”.

“We are relieved to see the government respond to calls by industry to ramp up biosecurity through detector dogs, greater communications material for travellers, and further biosecurity staff training,” Simson said.

“We are pleased Minister Watt is listening and taking this matter seriously, and acting appropriately to protect Australian shores from this potentially devastating disease.

“We now need the Government to continually review whether these measures go far enough, and consider the appropriateness of screening all incoming arrivals from high risk areas.

“We would also like to see an increase in frontline biosecurity officers at return airports and ongoing reviews into the appropriateness of additional intervention methods such as footbaths.”

It’s not just federal MPs politicising the issue either, with Queensland shadow Ag Minister Tony Perrett claiming last month’s state budget was a “missed opportunity for the State Labor Government to deal with and prepare for our biosecurity risks.”

“When public service numbers are soaring in other departments DAF’s biosecurity staff has not changed,” Perrett said, claiming Animal Biosecurity & Welfare (ABW) staff numbers have significantly dropped under the Palaszczuk government.

“ABW operations staff have dropped from 56.5 in 2015 to 44.8 in May, and field vet staff have gone from 7.6 to 6.3 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs). Biosecurity is going backwards as our threats increase,” Perrett said.

Queensland Ag minister Mark Furner didn’t respond to the Caller‘s request for comment by deadline.

Culling of animals during the 2001 British FMD outbreak. IMAGE: Daily Post

More than six million cattle, sheep and pigs were culled during the UK’s FMD crisis in 2001, causing losses of more than 8 billion pounds (approximately $AUD 19 billion).

AgForce CEO Michael Guerin said the risk of the disease arriving in Australia is very real and with the potential for widespread devastation, Agforce is warning members to stay alert and watch for signs of the disease.

“AgForce recommends tightened farm biosecurity on livestock properties, assessing the risk of property visitors (especially overseas’ travellers), visitor register for traceback/forward, footwear and equipment hygiene and checking for FMD symptoms among all affected livestock and feral species,” Guerin said.

For the latest advice head to the Department of Agriculture’s website.

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