Australia set to give its 69mn sheep IDs as foot and mouth fears rise

Australia will introduce a national ID system for sheep and goats as it braces for a potentially devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease that risks tearing an A$80bn (US$55bn) hole in its agricultural sector. 

A flare-up of foot and mouth disease in Indonesia in May spread to the popular tourist destination Bali this month, raising the prospect of the disease reaching Australia

Traces were discovered this week in Melbourne in an imported pork floss product. Customs officers also confiscated a dried beef product containing fragments of the disease at Adelaide airport.

New South Wales agriculture minister Dugald Saunders said the discoveries had provided a “frightening reminder of the need to ramp up our biosecurity controls”. He stressed that a national electronic ID system for the country’s 69mn sheep was needed to prepare for any outbreak.

David Stoate, who runs the Anna Plains Station in the Kimberley desert in Western Australia and has 20,000 cattle, said that the industry was facing its greatest threat in the 20 years he had been running the 300,000-hectare estate.

“Foot and mouth is the most feared livestock disease in the world. I can’t remember a threat any bigger,” he said. 

Andrew Henderson, who owns a small herd of Boer goats outside the town of Yass in New South Wales, described the Indonesian outbreak as “the biggest wake-up call” for the livestock industry in 30 years, since a previous Indonesian outbreak was contained.

He argued that the additional cost of tracing animals via electronic ID systems already used for cattle had not been evident to all sheep farmers in the past, but the risk of an outbreak has changed their minds.

Henderson, who advises the government on agricultural policy, said the threat of foot and mouth disease extended well beyond the red meat sector and was a risk to export industries such as wool and dairy. 

“Think about that contribution to the economy. Any stoppage of trade for any amount of time, especially [as long as] a couple of years, would be very serious,” he said.

The spread of foot and mouth, a highly infectious disease that causes blistering on the gums of cloven-hoofed animals, would prove devastating for Australia’s rural economy. Over the past two years, it has had to cope with bushfires, flooding and a mouse plague as well as a struggle to find workers.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Science estimated that the impact of a foot and mouth outbreak could be as high as A$80bn. 

A tagging system for cows has long been used in Australia but an ovine equivalent has proved unworkable because of the costs and the inability of the technology to cope with the sheer number of sheep in the country, according to Bonnie Skinner, chief executive of the Sheep Producers Association.

Improvements in technology, lower costs and the adoption of electronic sheep tagging in some parts of Australia, however, have paved the way for adopting it on a national scale.

The ID scheme is just one of several biosecurity measures being undertaken to stop the spread of the disease. Australia’s airports have installed disinfecting foot mats for passengers arriving from Indonesia and could start to seize shoes from travellers from Bali.

Those efforts and the seemingly successful containment of the spread of the Varroa destructor bee parasite this year have raised hopes that foot and mouth disease can be kept out. 

“I wouldn’t say I’m confident but I’m hopeful,” said Stoate.

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