Tas Country 5th August

As featured in the Tasmanian Country publication 5th August 2022

There is a silver lining to having foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) on our doorstep. Before everyone reaches for a pitchfork, I need to clarify. The benefit to Australia of FMD in Indonesia is the topic of biosecurity is getting the airtime it deserves.

Biosecurity has always been critically important, but it is often relegated to the back pages of pig or poultry journals or the ‘tick-box’ checklists of on-farm quality assurance (QA) programs. Many of us have signs on our front gates, which everyone ignores, a folder full of uncompleted visitor log forms and a pile of restricted animal material (RAM) statements on livestock feed labels we don’t pay attention to.

The recent focus on travellers returning to Australia from exotic disease ‘hot-spots’, like Bali, is important. But ironically, Australia’s greatest risk of contracting FMD is most likely to come from contraband feeding of livestock, such as pigs.

Foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in both the United Kingdom (2001) and South Africa (2000) were caused by the feeding of untreated, infected meat or meat products to pigs.

On 20 February 2001 an abattoir in Essex, UK, confirmed the first case of FMD in pigs from Burnside Farm, in Northumberland. An investigation into the origin of the outbreak showed no evidence the disease was introduced to the farm by animals, people, vehicles, equipment, vermin, wildlife etc. There was no evidence of disease on premises within 3km of Burnside Farm, pre-dating the infected pigs.

Researchers concluded the likeliest source of infection traced back to Burnside Farm was meat or meat products containing, or contaminated with, the FMD virus. The virus could have been introduced to the pigs as they consumed unprocessed, or inadequately processed, food waste or processed waste food contaminated with the virus. (That was a mouthful!)

It is worth noting that Burnside Farm was licensed to feed processed waste food under the Animal Byproducts Order 1999. It utilised food waste from bakeries, cafes, schools, hotels and restaurants. The inquiry was unable to determine the exact route by which the virus entered England. Infected meat or meat products imported for personal use, discarded as domestic food waste should have been treated to prevent the virus reaching livestock. Regardless, a total ban on feeding meat or meat products to animals in the UK was introduced after the 2001 FMD epidemic.

Researchers ultimately decided a combination of factors contributed to the initial speed of spread of FMD across the UK during 2001 including:

  • an initial delay in reporting suspicious lesions and lameness on the ‘ground-zero’ farm (farmers were unfamiliar with the symptoms of FMD)
  • the difficulty in diagnosing FMD in sheep
  • the reliance on shared and contract labour between farms.

The 2001 UK FMD epidemic resulted in 2026 confirmed cases of FMD and the destruction of more than 6,000,000 animals. A National Audit Office (UK) report to Parliament estimated the outbreak cost the public sector more than £3 billion and the private sector more than £5 billion back in 2001.

As such, one of the key messages from the UK epidemic is the importance of maintaining the integrity of our animal feed chain. Every report I read reiterates; “DON’T FEED RUMINANTS HUMAN FOOD WASTE PRODUCTS” and “DON’T SWILL-FEED PIGS”. In other words: “Keep your bakery cheese and bacon roll to yourself” Got it? It seems fairly obvious really.

We need to lift public awareness beyond dirty thongs to the threat of bringing food home to Australia or receiving ‘care packages’ from international family members. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry estimates an FMD outbreak in Australia would cost the economy $80 billion over 10 years. Those numbers place the $2664 fine for the undeclared Macca’s run from Bali in stark contrast.

Ian Sauer
TFGA President