Exercise outlines disease cost

AN exercise last week to test Australia’s ability to deal with a major foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak has been hailed an outstanding success, yet it has exposed the high risks for WA’s beef industry.

Exercise Minotaur dealt with an outbreak of the devastating cattle disease in south-east Queensland that spread into New South Wales and Victoria within two days.

Department of Agriculture Fisheries Forestry Australia public relations manager Howard Conkey said the simulation – while running over a week – took into account a three-month time frame.

More than 50 people from WA took part in the exercise, which involved around 1,100 people around Australia.

WA’s complement was largely drawn from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Fire and Emergency Services Authority of WA, WA Police Service, Department of Education and the WA Tourism Commission.

“After one week it was anticipated there would be a heavy fall in the Australian dollar and agribusiness company shares would lose a lot of value,” Mr Conkey said.

It has been estimated that an FMD outbreak anywhere in Australia would have a $60 billion cost.

While the immediate cost would be to Australia’s cattle industry there would be flow-on effects to tourism.

Indeed, the recent FMD outbreak in the UK is expected to cost those countries’ tourism industry $14 billion. It is estimated that industry will take eight years to recover.

WAFarmers meat section president Mike Norton said that, in the case of a real FMD outbreak, all Australian beef exports would be suspended no matter where the outbreak took place.

“A stock standstill would be put in place until the source of the outbreak and where any infected stock might have been moved from could be traced,” he said.

“A net would be thrown around the affected area.”

However, Mr Norton said while he was confident Australia’s framework for dealing with outbreaks of diseases such as FMD was sound, the damage to the country’s reputation would be immense.

“Once you have an outbreak there is a huge impact. Our disease-free status gives us access to every country in the world. It’s one of the reason why our live exports are a success,” he said.

“That’s how we got into Egypt and Libya. The Irish had been selling to Egypt for 25 years but once they had an outbreak of BSE, Egypt didn’t want to know them and turned to Australia.”

About 60 per cent of Australia’s beef production is exported.

Department of Agriculture executive director for animal industries Charlie Thorn said the exercise highlighted two major successes for WA.

“It showed we could successfully stop the disease from getting into WA and that we could effectively put in a zoning application,” he said.

A zoning application is allowed under international exotic disease control guidelines. If accepted by trading partners, the application can allow an area within a country with an FMD outbreak to continue exporting.

Mr Thorn said WA would have to show that its beef herds were disease free in order to be successful.

“We would have to meet inter-national requirements to prove this such as showing we had good border control and testing regimes in place,” he said.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Barry Court said he was surprised not to have been invited to take part in the exercise.

“The implications of such a disease outbreak would be massive. Preventing it is costing us a fortune now through our quarantine surveillance and such,” he said. “I think one of the things that has saved us is that Australia’s climate is not suitable for FMD to breed in.”

Indeed, there has not been an FMD outbreak in Australia for about 130 years.

WAFarmers president Colin Nicholl said increased tourism to areas such as Indonesia – which is infected with the particularly virulent Pan Asia-O strain of FMD –put Australia at risk.

“We also don’t have many vets in the regional areas. One of the keys to quickly stopping an FMD outbreak is rapid detection,” he said.

“The Federal Government has allocated funds for an additional eight vets, which is not much but it is a start.”

However, Mr Thorn said the Department of Agriculture had a network of its own vets around WA and also liaised closely with regional vets in private practice.

“A key issue is making sure they have this disease at the front of their brains. Our vet capacity is not that bad,” he said.

Mr Thorn said Australia’s quarantine measures would continue to keep the disease out of Australia.

The exercise also tested WA’s emergency response capabilities. The State Emergency Group, convened and maintained by the FESA, was utilised and a State Disease Control headquarters established.

The SEG is designed to be a protective device for the key agency that would be dealing with any emergency befalling WA. It helps to deflect political and socio-economic effects of any crisis.

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