A SERIOUS foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in Australia could cost the livestock industry more than $50 billion over 10 years, according to new modelling from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES).
A new ABARES report has shown the financial blow to industry could be much higher than earlier estimated, with a 2011 update of the Productivity Commission 2001 report estimating losses over a 10-year period ranging from $7.1b for a small three-month outbreak to $16b for a large 12-month outbreak.
Acting ABARES executive director Dr Kim Ritman said producers of beef, sheep, dairy and wool would be devastated by a large FMD outbreak.
“All red meat, live animal and livestock product exports to most major trading partners would stop until the disease was eradicated and market access could be renegotiated,” Dr Ritman said.
Dr Ritman noted this could be a lengthy process, pointing to the experiences of other countries with disease outbreaks and Australia’s own challenges in opening new export markets.
For large exporters, this would result in product being diverted to the domestic markets, reducing product prices.
“It could take several years before we could get our product back into our major export markets,” Dr Ritman said.
Australian live cattle exports totalled 633,703 head in 2012-13, valued at A$588.7 million, while Australian live sheep exports totalled 2,057,685 head in 2012-13, valued at $201 million. Indonesia was the largest importer of Australian beef, while the Middle East took more than 99 per cent of Australian sheep exports.
Australia’s livestock industries have not been exposed to FMD and are "fully susceptible", according to the Department of Agriculture. The disease is found as close to Australia as Malaysia. It is also reported across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America. Most recently, the outbreaks in Japan and Korea were due to FMD serotype O virus.
While biosecurity controls have kept FMD out of Australia for more than 130 years, it is a highly contagious disease.
FMD affects cloven-hoofed animals, causing distress in adult animals and often death in younger ones, although the meat remains safe for human consumption.
While it can cause serious production losses the most significant impact of the disease would be its effect on trade.
Australia’s chief veterinary officer Dr Mark Schipp said the ABARES report served as a timely reminder about the importance of maintaining an effective biosecurity system in Australia.
“We have stringent controls at the border and we do quite a lot of work with our near neighbours in south-east Asia to minimise the risk of it getting in,” Dr Schipp said.
Dr Schipp said plans are in place to ensure that, in the unlikely event that the disease did get into the country, it would be eradicated as quickly as possible.
The ABARES report assessed the economic and social impacts under a few FMD outbreak scenarios and showed that while still very costly, a small outbreak that is identified and eradicated quickly is not as devastating for producers and rural communities.
The clinical signs of FMD are fever followed by the appearance of fluid-filled blisters between the toes and on the heels and especially on the lips, tongue and palate of infected animals. Foot lesions leave animals lame and unable to walk to feed or water. Tongue and mouth lesions are very painful and cause animals to drool and stop eating.
Human infections have been reported but they are very rare and do not result in serious disease. Humans can carry the virus in their nose for up to 24 hours and can be a source of infection for animals.