Swine fever contraband unlikely to be infectious

Swine fever contraband unlikely to be infectious

Beef
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Ag staff play down possibility disease already here.

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CLOSE to half the meat contraband seized by biosecurity authorities at Australian airports in the latest batch tested was infected with African Swine Fever.

However, Department of Agriculture senior staff are playing down the possibility the costly disease has already slipped into the country.

Department staff told a senate estimates hearing in Canberra this week 48 per cent of seized material tested in September was infected with ASF, up from 15pc in February in line with the global spread of the disease.

While those numbers are high, it did not mean that material was infectious - in fact it was almost certain that was not the case, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Daryl Quinlivan said.

"It means there was evidence of the virus in the products. The vast majority was probably DNA fragments of the virus that wasn't viable," he said.

Senior agriculture staff were responding to questions at the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee hearing around the effectiveness of Australia's biosecurity management in response to the ASF threat.

ASF is now touted as the biggest animal disease event the world has ever seen, forecast to have wiped out one-in-four of the world's pigs, including more than 200 million from China, by year's end.

The disease doesn't pose a threat to human health but kills about 80 per cent of pigs it infects and has been detected only 650 kilometres off Australia's northern shores.

When that East Timor detection was made, one of Australia's most experienced detector dogs, Suki, was shipped to Darwin, which has nine direct flights from Indonesia each week.

In her first week, Suki made a find in the form of an international student carrying sausage and cooked meat, however that material has not yet been tested for ASF.

The department was now looking at deploying a detector dog to Cairns as well, given the large number of flights from Asia arriving there, the hearing was told.

Australia currently has 35 operational dogs and another four in training. It takes nine to 12 months to train a dog, at a cost of $200,000.

Staff confirmed the number of detector dogs working was less than a decade ago but explained the dogs were now deployed more effectively.

This information came in response to questioning from Senator for Western Australia Glenn Sterle.

In the six years to 2017, 272 tonnes of meat products were intercepted on passengers entering the country and in international mail, a figure the department confirmed was consistent with what is currently the case.

Those products potentially carry ASF, foot and mouth and other serious livestock diseases.

Of that volume, 22pc was undeclared and most of that was found by detector dogs.

"Never-the-less, the number of detector dogs we have has halved since 2012," Senator Sterle said.

The department's head of compliance Peta Lane made two points on that.

"Detector dogs are one of a suite of tools we use today. We also use scanning technology and physical inspection," she said.

"Secondly, we are now training our dogs for multiple purposes. Where previously they were trained for either mail centre or airport deployment they are now trained to work in multiple risk areas."

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Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie said there was no doubt there was an increasing risk with meat products being sent through mail pathways and on passengers, with biosecurity seizures made predominantly meat products.

While not every single passenger and piece of mail was screened, authorities employed a highly strategic risk profiling system and intervened where there was high risk.

Queensland senator Pauline Hanson asked about increasing fines and ensuring penalties served as a deterrent "rather than a slap on the wrist."

Minister McKenzie: "A woman was recently deported for breaking the biosecurity act. There is no question we are taking this seriously."

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