Foot and mouth threatens billion dollar beef export game

Shan Goodwin
By Shan Goodwin
Updated May 9 2022 - 5:04am, first published 4:10am
Beef exports on tenterhooks with foot and mouth on our doorstep

THE $300 million worth of red meat exports sent from Australia every week could come to a grinding halt overnight if just one case of foot and mouth disease is detected.

The chances of that happening now has taken an alarming turn for the worst, with more than 1200 cases now confirmed in Indonesian cattle.

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The highly contagious FMD, arguably the world's most serious livestock disease, is now geographically within a much closer range.

While it is endemic in many South East Asian countries, Malaysia was the closest to Australia it had been before now.

Infected animals would likely have to be destroyed so the losses to producers at the farmgate would be phenomenal but the most significant impact would be the immediate effect on trade.

Patrick Hutchinson, head of the country's peak red meat export body, the Australian Meat Industry Council, said not one of Australia's global markets would be unaffected.

"FMD is treated globally as a reportable disease by the OIE, therefore all markets would react initially - that is cease taking our red meat," he said.

"This situation is so drastic because it affects every animal protein and every market.

"If we can contain an outbreak regionally, or ring fence via vaccination, that will let us renegotiate with our trading partners.

"That is why we need to be so, so vigilant right now."

Mr Hutchinson said the extensive preparation for FMD, and Australian beef's world-leading traceability systems, places us in a strong position.

However, the ability of producers to identify, and report, FMD the minute it arrives would be critical.

"Being able to provide confidence to the rest of the world that we've contained it, and traced all animals, will be key," Mr Hutchinson said.

"If we can get back into markets just one week earlier because of our traceability systems, they've paid for themselves," he said.

Mr Hutchinson, and other cattle industry leaders, said losses would likely be far more than the official Federal Government estimates, which range from $7.1 billion for a small three-month outbreak to $16b for one lasting a year.

Those calculations don't factor in the skyrocketing cattle market nor the global shortage of beef of the past two years.

Many in the cattle industry fear an FMD outbreak now is a matter of when, not if.

The deputy secretary of biosecurity and compliance with the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment Andrew Tongue, at a recent beef industry conference, said natural pathways were giving authorities the biggest biosecurity headaches right now, with the CSIRO's working theory that JEV arrived via Tropical Cyclone Blake two years ago.

He said natural pathways were also a concern for lumpy skin disease.

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However, the DAWE today said the risk to Australia of FMD remained low in the absence of close contact between animals or the importation of infected products.

FMD can spread through close contact between animals, and be carried on animal products or short distances by the wind, a statement from the department said.

FMD affects all animals with divided hoofs, including cattle, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs.

The 2001 FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom caused losses of more than 8 billion pounds - or $19b in Australian dollar terms - with more than 6m head of cattle and sheep destroyed.

The 2010/11 Korean outbreak is estimated to have cost 3 trillion won.

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Shan Goodwin

Shan Goodwin

National Agriculture Writer - Beef

Shan Goodwin steers ACM’s national coverage of the beef industry. Shan has worked as a journalist for 30 years, the majority of that with agricultural publications. She spent many years as The Land’s North Coast reporter and has visited beef properties and stations throughout the country and overseas. She treats all breeds equally.

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