By Howard Smith, AgForce Cattle President
THE discovery of Bovine Johne’s disease in Central Queensland in late 2012, known as Q24, has challenged much more than merely Queensland’s capacity to maintain our strong biosecurity record.
It also became a flashpoint for the formation of fringe producer groups opposing both the Government and AgForce’s response to the incursion.
In its support of Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, John McVeigh, and his decision to uphold Queensland’s BJD ‘Protected Zone’ status, AgForce has been repeatedly criticised and encouraged by the fringe groups to change policy and become a proponent of ‘deregulation’ of the disease.
Of course these groups are entitled to this opinion and AgForce will always welcome constructive criticism but now, some seven months after the initial detection, it is important to reiterate why we remain committed to maintenance of Protected Zone status.
We acknowledge there is no such thing as zero risk and that there may be further incurions in the future but we also stand very firmly behind the premise all must be done to mitigate the risk of BJD spreading further than it already has.
As a Protected Zone under the National Johne’s Disease Control Program, Queensland is recognised as an area where there is little or no evidence of BJD and that there is a high level of confidence that if the disease were present it would be detected. The discovery of Q24 has done very little in terms of changing this biosecurity policy, although it has been subject to careful review.
Policy Rationale and Review
Since the Q24 incident there has been a range of considerations made by AgForce and an exhaustive interrogation of our policy position to ensure it is in the best interests of the Queensland industry and our AgForce producer members. This includes principally:
- Animal Health and Welfare Outcomes: This is an often ignored factor. BJD is a disease and, as such, has an adverse impact on the health of an animal. As producers we have a legal duty of care to look after our livestock to the best of our ability and to sell animals that are fit for purpose. Furthermore, why would producers want to contend with another disease which has potential to affect their operation, particularly one that cannot yet be effectively prevented or clinically treated?
- Market Access: While it has been claimed this argument has been ‘oversold’ the threat of diminished market access is very real. Internationally, there are 134 technical trade barriers related to BJD in 43 markets for feeder, breeder and genetic exports. Domestically, all Queensland cattle herds have MN1 status under the Cattle Map and are free to trade with other Protected Zones, with the exception of Western Australia which has shifted the goal posts in response to Q24.
- Lack of Clinical Information: There are currently three infected properties with another 47 awaiting testing or results. The scientific information we have strongly suggests not only can this disease be managed but also that the regulatory framework is doing its job. Equally, there is still validation being undertaken on the strain type of the Q24. The current ‘Bison’ typing does not accurately identify the source or the trace back process. We need scientific confirmation of this in order to access the implications of this for Queensland without ‘jumping ship’ prematurely.
- Lack of Research and Development: Research and Development projects investigating BJD in a northern pastoral context is in its infancy with considerable work ahead before any results can be collected and conclusions made. At this point, we know nothing about how BJD survives, thrives or dies in the diverse regions and seasons across Queensland. Until hard evidence is readily available to industry, the Protected Zone approach best positioned to reduce risk throughout the supply chain.
- Links to human health or consumption: This is perhaps the elephant in the room. It has been widely reported BJD is not a disease that affects meat consumption or human health. This being said, scientific research continues to attempt to seek out links between Johne’s disease and Crohne’s disease. As an industry, we should be ever hopeful that this is not the case however this perception does exist and scientists are working hard to correlate the links between the two. Given increasing consumer scrutiny this is another critical reason why BJD should be managed to the lowest common denominator in Queensland.
- Reviews of the alternatives: There have been frequent callsto adopt an alternative management approach such as ‘deregulated’ or ‘producer managed’ or to adopt an interstate model. Factors to consider include but are not restricted to:
- Impact on buyers or ‘BJD Free’ producers: A voluntary Cattle Market Assurance program or Beef Only declarations do little to protect buyers or BJD free producers. Unless producers are in the Cattle MAP, declaration of a BJD status is voluntary by the vendor and is neither policed nor enforced. Infected or suspect producers details are kept confidential and the onus is on the buyer to seek clinical assurances of BJD Freedom.
- Impact on BJD quarantined producers: Alternative approaches would likely provide limited value to current Queensland affected producers. Under the current system the State pays for testing costs and a Financial Assistance Package, even if its adequacy has been questioned, is available. Under other regimes, this support would not exist. BJD would still be notifiable and in some areas would still attract a quarantine period. Producers would have to clean up BJD at their own behest.
- Costs passed back to industry: Producers would have to pay to participate in market assurance programs, testing, any surveillance, vets fees as well as education and compliance programs all of which they currently do not pay for under the current regime.
AgForce Queensland is well aware of the financial and emotional strain that has been placed on BJD-affected producers as they remain under quarantine for an uncertain period.
We also acknowledge there are producers in Queensland who disagree with our stance and can see much of this opposition is based on direct impact on their businesses.
However, as an advocacy group that represents the cattle industry in its entirety, we must support this state remaining a BJD Protected Zone for the long term profitability of the sector as a whole.