Farmers fearing an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease feel like ‘sitting ducks’


Cattle ranchers say they feel like “sitting ducks” and fear an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) could harm regional communities and their economies.

The highly infectious disease is spread by livestock in Bali and throughout Indonesia.

As the school holidays in South Australia begin next week, thousands of travelers are expected to flock to Bali.

But Limestone Coast pork, mutton and beef producer Mark Wheal said there was “not enough collaboration or action” from government and industry, leaving the producers feel like “sitting ducks”.

“I don’t think I can stress this enough. It’s a massive financial crisis for the entire industry if we have an outbreak in a regional community like ours,” he said.

“Here in the southeast, I don’t know too many businesses that only grow crops…so I would imagine everyone would be hit hard financially, and that would trickle down to all of our small towns and businesses.

“It would have a devastating impact on our local and rural economies.”

Wild deer and pigs add to containment issues

Mr Wheal said adding to the threat were the numbers of wild deer and even pigs along parts of the limestone coast, which would make controlling an outbreak “almost impossible”.

Mark and Kate Wheal, along with their daughters Lilly and Willow, run Beachport Berkshires, a certified free range business.(Provided)

“We have a very thorough biosecurity program in place as a certified producer of free-range pork, but even with the pandemic it has highlighted additional risks for us that we have had to manage,” he said. .

He said he thought fee-funded industry groups and the government were “backtracking” on the issue and needed to increase collaboration, as well as action at airports, including smaller regional airports.

“It has to happen yesterday and not six months from now where we’ll sort it out,” Mr Wheal said.

“Whether it’s mandatory footbaths at airports or massive fines to make sure people actually buy into these things, we need united action.”

On-farm education potential

Along with his wife Kate and the farm workers, the Wheal family regularly engages with industrial and public tour groups who visit the farm.

Mr Wheal said they would now have to rethink their level of community involvement on the farm.

“But on the other hand, there is an education process that could take place at the local level, for farm workers and people who visit farms.

“They need to understand that a vacation in Bali could spell disaster for farmers in their local community.”

Mark Wheal - standing in pig pen in front of machinery - pigs in background
Mark Wheal says his family will have to rethink their level of community involvement on the farm, such as school tour groups.(Provided)

Mount Gambier Nutrien Livestock Officer Dale Keatley said the growing risk of foot and mouth disease entering Australia was a timely reminder of the importance of livestock traceability.

“For the past few years we have been using traceability systems that track our livestock and livestock movements.

“Some states are a little further [along] on this and there are calls for South Australia to follow Victoria’s lead and introduce mandatory EID tags.

“We need to be able to quickly locate if and when there are issues and act to isolate that animal or crowd.

“We can learn from the UK experience, including doing simple things like making sure boots are sanitized and vehicle movement on the farm is restricted and managed.”

Stock agent Dale Keatley in an Akubra style hat with one arm on the stockyard railing
Dale Keatley said officers are increasing biosecurity measures on the farm, including disinfecting shoes.(Provided)

Mr Keatley said livestock officers who routinely visit a number of farms each day are increasing their own biosecurity practices.

“Years ago there were foot problems in the sheep industry and we got used to cleaning shoes between customer farm visits.”

Learn the lessons of history

In 2001, foot-and-mouth disease cost the UK around $13 billion and led to the euthanasia of over 6 million sheep and cattle.

This event destroyed an already decimated industry that was trying to recover from an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, in the previous decade.

Australia has not had a case of foot-and-mouth disease since the 1870s, but at the time of writing, Indonesia, a close neighbor and trading ally, had recorded more than 230,000 confirmed cases, including 63 in bali.

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Growing risk of foot and mouth disease reaching Australia

New federal agriculture minister Murray Watt announced biosecurity measures this week, including detector dogs at airports in Darwin and Cairns, boarding biosecurity officers on flights from Indonesia , as well as the signage and distribution of leaflets at major airports informing travelers of the risk of foot-and-mouth disease and the precautions to take.

During his recent visit to Indonesia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed Australian vaccines and technical expertise to the outbreak.


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