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Wake up call for Australian Agriculture

Posted by Robert Herrmann on 23 April 2019
Robert Herrmann
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The latest biosecurity failure in South Africa (SA), the detection of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), not only had immediate impacts, with the banning of all movements of cloven foot animals and their products; but also consequential impacts on other SA farm products. 

This prompted the announcement by China that its customs department was suspending "all greasy wool imports from South Africa as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak earlier in the year" (ABC Country Hour)._88276245_pyre2_cut

This came as a shock with little preparation from Cape Wools SA. They immediately announced a suspension of wool sales, in fact with the dominance of China in wool processing they had little choice. Wool sales have now recommenced; however, China’s suspension on imports remains.

While the biosecurity plans of SA were put to the test and the outbreak of FMD was contained, the situation has highlighted the need for robust traceability capability. South Africa’s government has recently announced that it will implement a national animal identification and traceability system.

How would Australia cope?

Australia has a rigorous model, with all livestock movements requiring a documented process.

This system is further enhanced with Electronic Identification Tags (EID), a mandatory requirement for all cattle, and paper documentation to follow and track all sheep, goat and pig movements.

In Victoria, all sheep and goats born after 1st January 2017 must also have an EID tag.

The then Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford said at the time “the current system, which uses visual ear tags to trace the movement of sheep across Australia, was not strong enough to bear a biosecurity threat like an outbreak of foot and mouth disease”.

This change required saleyards and abattoirs to install operational scanning infrastructure by mid-2017.

"Other states will watch with great interest," Ms Pulford said. "Victoria is very proud to take the lead."

In fact, to date, no other state has followed Victoria’s lead, with the issue barely rating any serious discussion in recent times.

Not everyone was in favour

While the initiative of Victoria was a step forward in using technology to improve traceability, it was not universally applauded.

The federal government and major industry wool & sheep representative bodies were not impressed, saying that the existing “paper trail” of tracing the movement of livestock was “working well” and the EID model was an unnecessary cost.tag

At grower and agent briefings by the Department of Agriculture, there was widespread resistance citing concerns about the capability of agents & saleyards to handle the new requirements.

The saleyard managers, however, were provided with subsidized scanning technology and quietly went on with preparing for the challenge. It now seems that despite the concerns, the system appears entrenched and working well.

Not if, but when! 

There are those who are charged with ensuring our biosecurity who believe that an outbreak in Australia in the future is inevitable. In recent times, there have been increased instances of visitors at airports attempting to bring contaminated products into the country.

While we hope any infected product does not get through the rigorous border security checkpoints, should we be faced with an outbreak, the traceability of stock movements will be critical.

To provide assurance to our trading partners, and in the case of a disease outbreak the confidence to allow Australian agricultural product to be exported, the system in place to trace any stock movement even remotely associated with the affected stock will be put to the test.

We can look to the US as a case study of poor traceability impacting economically for an extended time. In 2003 the USA discovered 1 cow infected with Mad Cow Disease (BSE). It was later confirmed that this old dairy cow had come from Canada.

In subsequent years the USA has identified 6 cows with the disease, in consequence, the US lost access to premium beef markets for 5 years. Industry experts estimate that it was an $11.0 billion cost the US beef industry.

Time to prepare

Where biosecurity is concerned, continuous preparation, process review and improvement are essential.

Therefore, its time is to re-visit the issue of EID tags for sheep in all states. The industry bodies and the elected or appointed representatives now need to lead this process. With the pace of technology improvement continuing unabated, the industry bodies including MLA, AWI & Sheep Producers Australia must lead in its implementation. This will not only prepare for any biosecurity breach or disease outbreak, but it will also provide our trading partners with greater confidence in the “clean, green & safe” features of Australian agricultural produce.

This initiative will provide a quick response and speedy approach to controlling damage if needed, but it will also provide our markets with an enhanced point of difference ensuring market access and premium prices.

Topics: Wool industry, cattle, sheep

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