Is Australia’s livestock contact tracing system prepared for an outbreak of foot and mouth disease?

Shortly after foot-and-mouth disease was first detected in Indonesia, Brad Inglis made the difficult decision to shut down his spelling yards, one of the busiest in the Northern Territory.

“If there is a [FMD outbreak]we are a high-risk area with the number of trucks and the volume of cattle going through here,” Mr Inglis said.

Sturt Plains Station is roughly on the NT tick line, 650 kilometers southeast of Darwin, and in some years can spell and dip up to 60,000 cattle when trucked north or the south.

Spelling lessons are an important part of Mr. Inglis’ business. But he decided to temporarily close the yard due to concerns about the robustness of Australia’s livestock tracking system.

He was concerned that if foot-and-mouth disease entered Australia, infected cattle could unknowingly cross his yards and transmit the disease to their own cattle.

“We didn’t panic, but we thought, ‘Let’s just shut down, put a few things in place and see where we go,'” he said.

The spelling yards have since reopened but Mr. Inglis still has one major concern.

“Traceability is my biggest concern and has been for some time,” he said.

Sturt Plains Station closed its spelling yards earlier this year due to biosecurity concerns.(Rural ABC: Max Rowley)

The NLIS is not a “national” system

In all states and territories of Australia, cattle must be tagged or have an electronic device to track movement through the supply chain as part of the National Cattle Identification System (NLIS).

“It’s arguably the world’s leading animal traceability and identification system,” said Troy Setter, managing director of Consolidated Pastoral Company, one of Australia’s largest cattle producers with holdings in the Northern Territories, Queensland and Western Australia.

The system plays a key role in facilitating trade and market access, as well as contact tracing and disease containment in the event of an outbreak.

But Mr Inglis said he was concerned about inconsistent rules and procedures for tracing livestock movements between states and territories.

“The most important thing for me is the industry. We are all affected if something happens, it’s not just us here in our yards and our herd – that’s it,” he said. he declares.

“It has to be a national system, not ‘this state does it one way’ or ‘this state does it another way’.

“They all claim it’s so important, but I think it needs to be much better – more in-depth.”

Mr. Inglis claimed that cattle were not scanned when entering and exiting some interstate spelling yards during transit, indicating a weakness in the traceability system.

“[In some cases]I am the last signature on a document from here to Singleton in New South Wales or further,” he said.

“There’s no reading in the database, there’s no paperwork. It’s just; unload, reload and go. So that’s a little worrying.”

“I just don’t see how there is [no traceability] between here and the kill point at 3,000 km.”

Cattle in a pen with the Global Compliance green ear tag.
Electronic ear tags store data and trace livestock through the supply chain.

Mr Setter said he shared some concerns about how the system would work in the event of a major outbreak.

“It’s never been tested with a big disease outbreak challenge like foot-and-mouth disease or lumpy skin,” he said.

“It’s so important that we perform theoretical tests and incursion tests on the system as soon as possible to make sure it can handle it.”

“Breaks in the chain”

Mr Setter said it was “absolutely crucial” to know exactly where livestock were in the event of an outbreak.

A man stands with his arms crossed, wearing a bright green work shirt and a cowboy hat.
Troy Setter, general manager of Consolidated Pastoral Company.(Rural ABC: Max Rowley)

“If we can’t identify where the animals are, what they are, where they’ve been in contact, within hours, the risk of the highly contagious disease, like foot-and-mouth disease, spreading rapidly through the Australia is real,” he said. said.

“If we don’t act fast enough…we could be out of the markets for many years… [causing] a multi-billion dollar economic loss and a social loss to the Australian economy – not just to Australian cattle, sheep and goat farmers.”

Katherine’s breeding agent, Leo Ballantine, said enforcing compliance was a major challenge in addressing “breaks in the chain”.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the NLIS system, it’s just that the processes aren’t being followed,” he said.

“People just don’t do their job properly.”

A man wears a red cap and patterned work shirt, looks at the camera with his arms folded, behind him piles of farm supplies.
Leo Ballantine is a breeding agent based in Katherine, NT.(Rural ABC: Max Rowley)

Mr Setter said it was time to move to “absolutely clear national standards” for traceability.

“I appreciate that there is state-based legislation, but it would be really nice to see every state implement and manage the exact same standards for animal movement, transport and registration,” a- he declared.

“And for our small cattle ranchers who don’t have electronic reading devices on their property, we need to work out how they set up and place cattle in the database.”

Reform the NLIS

“The problems and inconsistencies in our traceability system have been well known for a long time,” said Andrew Henderson, chairman of industry and government group SafeMeat.

In 2020, SafeMeat presented recommendations to the federal government to reform the NLIS, including creating and funding a new national regulator to oversee traceability, which is currently a state responsibility.

One of the advisory group’s recommendations is about to be implemented; a new obligation for farmers to individually tag sheep and goats with electronic identification tags from 1 January 2025.

Mr. Henderson said he was optimistic that the reform would continue.

“If you had asked me if there was enough to do six or 12 months ago, you would have said: ‘No, I don’t think so, we have to go much faster. “”

“But since [the FMD outbreak] so close to our northern border…it has made everyone in the community much more aware of the impact…not just on the red meat and livestock sector or rural and regional Australia, but on the economy national more broadly.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said:

“The Australian Government is responsible for export trade and the systems needed to support it, and industry uses traceability systems for trade results and to meet regulatory requirements,” the spokesperson said.

“The Australian Government, together with the States and Territories, and supplier NLIS Integrity Systems Company, are taking a continuous improvement approach to our world-class systems to ensure that we remain at the forefront of the world and can meet the future challenges and needs of our national biosecurity and the economic outcomes of trade.”