Federal ag dept not agile enough to stop swine fever invasion risk

Swine fever risks could overwhelm stretched border forces says biosecurity boss

Agribusiness
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Crisis management pressures to stop African swine fever have increased the risk of numerous biosecurity threats slipping into Australia says inspector-general

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Australia's biosecurity inspector-general has warned agricultural quarantine services must be beefed up to anticipate five years of heightened risk from killer pig disease African swine fever.

The federal agriculture department has also been accused of increasing the risk of other biosecurity threats slipping into Australia by pulling quarantine resources from other parts of its network as it tries to stop the global swine fever danger landing here.

With the contagious disease confirmed last week in the Mendi Munihu district of Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands - just 450 kilometres from Cape York - Australian pig producers and government authorities are on high alert for a potential outbreak in the north.

The pork industry is particularly wary of wetter seasonal conditions in North Queensland this year triggering a breeding boom among feral pigs which may rapidly spread the disease nationwide.

Better screening of flights from neighbouring swine fever-infected countries, and detector dogs to sniff out potential imported food risks and passengers arriving on cruise ships docking in Australia were among findings in a 70-plus page report signed off by inspector-general Rob Delane last month.

Diversion of resources for crisis management from other parts of the biosecurity system is not sustainable and may increase the risk of severe pest or disease incursions and trade disruption - Rob Delane, inspector-general of biosecurity

The study into the adequacy of preventative border measures to mitigate swine fever risks featured 10 key recommendations.

More scrutiny needed

They ranged from more scrutiny of airline flights, ships and mail from overseas, to a long term funding commitment for African swine fever (AFS) management and a sustained awareness campaign in high risk countries about Australia's rigid quarantine laws.

Fears about swine fever's potential cost to the $2 billion pig industry have already seen "dozens" of travellers who landed in Australia in the past six months promptly sent back home because they failed to declare pork in their luggage.

In 2018-19, before inspections were intensified late last year, biosecurity officials seized more than 31,500 pork products weighing more than 33 tonnes from international travellers and mail centres.

In September tests showed about half the pork seized at mail depots and airports had swine fever virus fragments.

Most contaminated samples arrived by mail.

Too slow

The inspector-general's report claimed the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment had "inadequate agility" and responded slowly to evolving challenges like swine fever.

The department's restrained resources meant its ASF efforts drew people "away from vital measures to mitigate other biosecurity risks".

"Diversion of resources for crisis management (including ASF) from other parts of the biosecurity system is not sustainable and may increase the risk of severe pest or disease incursions and trade disruption," the report said.

Among other biosecurity fears mentioned was the risk posed by brown marmorated stink bug to orchards if quarantine measures were not adequate enough to stop the insect hitchhiking on plant material arriving in Australia.

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The inspector-general said the department must make major organisational changes within three to five years to "prevent biosecurity risks, and transform its biosecurity systems and operations".

We can't afford any weak links in our defence against ASF - all aspects of monitoring at our borders are critical - Margo Andrae, Australian Pork Limited

Agriculture department head Andrew Metcalfe responded saying "intervention" for high risk flights was increased in December and an extra 500,000 passengers were expected to be screened by late 2020 under a $66.6 million swine fever program.

The department planned targeted operations for cruise ships, had increased mail screening and would have extra detector dogs in service by July.

Australian Pork Limited chief executive office Margo Andrae was "not so surprised" to find swine fever had spread to PNG, but was concerned the source of the infection was apparently via tinned pork scraps fed to pigs, not from pigs or people crossing the border from Indonesia.

"You would think canned food processing should destroy the virus, but we don't know much about where the tinned product originated," Ms Andrae said.

"This is why we've hammered home the message about the danger of cooked and fresh food imports to Australia.

"We can't afford any weak links in our defence against ASF - all aspects of monitoring at our borders are critical."

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud agreed while Australia already had strict measures to prevent ASF hitting our shores, it was "important to regularly assess and improve the measures in place".

"With the spread of ASF around the world, including to our neighbours Timor-Leste, Indonesia and now PNG, our biosecurity is more critical than ever," he said.

PNG swine fever alert

The Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health and PNG government veterinary services reported almost 400 free-ranging pigs died in Mendi from early March.

Last year African swine fever spread rapidly killing millions of pigs in Asia, with Indonesia reporting 30,000 deaths in North Sumatra in December.

About half the Chinese herd died from the disease or been killed as part of control efforts to eliminate it, subsequently reducing the world's pig numbers by 25pc in one swoop.

Ms Andrae said the pork industry was working hard with the federal authorities to raise awareness of swine fever in PNG, the Torres Strait and northern Australia, and scrutinise travel movements from near northern neighbours.

However, she highlighted a "timely recommendation" in the biosecurity inspector-general's report for more risk assessments relating to flights from ASF affected countries, including a focus on seasonal farm workers arriving in Australia and moving around regional areas.

Double whammy worry

Heightened swine fever concern was weighing on the industry already feeling the heavy cost pressure of inflated grain prices and the collapse of 26pc of its traditional market in the restaurant and hospitality sector due to coronavirus shutdowns.

Another 10pc of niche sales to premium export destinations such as Singapore and Hong Kong had also dried up.

After the initial rush of coronavirus emergency shopping demand for pork, producer' payments sank about 30 cents a kilogram last week and could do the same this week.

Pork prices currently averaged about $3.50/kg, down from $4/kg-plus late last year.

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The story Federal ag dept not agile enough to stop swine fever invasion risk first appeared on Farm Online.

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