‘Doubtful assumptions’ weaken Australia’s FMD plan

James Nason, 23/11/2011

How well prepared is Australia for a possible future Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak? Not as well prepared as Australia's multi-billion dollar livestock industries might hope, given the devastating impact that an incursion would have in this country.

An extensive independent review of Australia’s existing disease response systems has revealed some alarming holes in what many would assume should be a watertight national plan.

The Federal Government-commissioned review, conducted by former high level public servant Ken Matthews, has found that Australia’s approach to dealing with an FMD event is built around a number of “doubtful assumptions”.

These include that an outbreak would be detected quickly, and would therefore be contained and controlled quickly; that it would arrive through conventional, legal import channels subject to AQIS supervision, and that Australia’s disease management response capacity will be sufficient to deal with an outbreak (more 'doubtful assumptions' at the bottom of this article)

However the reviewers fear that it could realistically be weeks or months before any outbreak is detected, by which time the disease could have spread extensively.

The reviewers believe it is more likely that FMD would enter Australia via an illegal and non-AQIS supervised import channel.

And they are also concerned that if an outbreak is larger than any previous disease incursion that has occurred in Australia, that it could quickly overwhelm existing state, national and industry resources.

Mr Matthews said his team had found that there were “many strengths of the Australian bio-security continuum”.

However, despite these strengths, there was much that should be done to mitigate the risks and reduce the costs of an FMD outbreak.

He nominated 11 areas that were in need of attention:

  • Australia's national capability to anticipate an FMD outbreak and translate warning intelligence into action
  • The standard of assurances that exporting countries’ Competent Authorities are operating to Australian biosecurity requirements
  • The possibility of illegal importation of animal products
  • The effectiveness of swill feeding prohibitions
  • Australia’s capacity to sustain a large-scale FMD response
  • Traceability arrangements in the sheep industry
  • Policy on FMD vaccination and associated difficulties in preparing for a short-notice vaccination campaign
  • Preparation for the known challenges of carcase disposal
  • The possibility that FMD may not be detected readily and speedily
  • A lack of clarity about responsibility and accountability for national FMD planning processes
  • Planning for community recovery.

Mr Matthews was commissioned by Mr Ludwig in February to review Australia’s current capacity to prevent and respond to an FMD outbreak. He handed his final report to Mr Ludwig last month. It was circulated to state and territory agricultural ministers but has was only made publicly available on the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry website today. 

FMD has been described as the single greatest threat of any disease to Australia’s livestock industries.

Australia has not had an FMD outbreak since 1872. The report predicts that much of Australia’s large export market, and the competitive advantage Australia gains from its FMD status, would be lost, possibly forever, if an FMD outbreak occurred here.

An updated analysis by ABARES warns that potential losses to the livestock and meat processing sector would range from $7.1 billion for a small three month outbreak, to $16 billion for a large 12 month outbreak.

“The message is clear: investment in prevention and preparedness is a prudent insurance policy against such sizeable losses,” the report states.


These are the assumptions that the review team believes are flawed, and their reasons for doubting them:

  • That an outbreak of FMD will be detected in the first few days, so that stamping out could commence before the significant spread occurred. The team fear it could be weeks before an outbreak is detected and reported.
  • That the most likely pathway of FMD into Australia would be through conventional, legal import processes subject to AQIS supervision and intervention. The reviewers believe the more likely pathway will be through non-transparent, illegal import channels.
  • That State and Territory Government legislation is effectively managing critical control points on FMD pathways. The team believes existing legislation is inadequately enforced in places, particularly in relation to swill feeding bans and sheep mob identification.
  • That disease management response capacity will be sufficient to deal with an outbreak. The assessment was that an outbreak more demanding than any previous animal disease outbreak could quickly overwhelm state, national and industry resources.
  • That stamping out would proceed routinely in line with AUSVETPLAN. The review team believes the human and physical capacity to stamp out via large scale slaughter and burial would quickly be exhausted. Further, there may well be unanticipated community opposition on animal welfare and perhaps food security/food wastage grounds.
  • That international market access would be speedily restored following eradication. The team’s view was that key importing countries would set their own timetables to satisfy themselves that eradication had indeed been achieved. This could take months after Australian authorities had declared Australia-disease free.
  • That domestic market access for meat and animal products would provide a partial buffer for industries affected by the loss of international market. Based on overseas experiences and advice from Australian retail industry, the team’s view is that there could be considerable consumer resistance to consuming meat and animal products, including milk. Moreover, zoning restrictions may well pose extended barriers to movement of such products within the domestic market.


Mr Matthews' full report can be viewed here

Veterinarian's Reponse:

The Australian Veterinary Association released the following response to the Matthews report today:

"The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) supports the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Matthews Review, particularly his recognition of the key role that both private and government veterinarians play in the rapid detection and response to animal disease outbreaks.

However, we are concerned that any future animal disease response could be compromised by ongoing inconsistencies between each jurisdictions’ approach to the contracting and deployment of private veterinarians. A number of problems which were identified during the equine influenza outbreak of 2007 have still not been addressed despite four years of representations and discussions between stakeholders. 

The AVA has specifically identified the need for consistency across all jurisdictions in contractual arrangements for private veterinarians assisting with disease response efforts. This is essential to allow veterinarians from all over the country to respond immediately to cross-border animal disease outbreaks.  We are pleased this concern has been picked up in Section 5 of the Review, and again emphasise the need for immediate action on this issue before a serious disease outbreak puts Australia’s response preparedness to the test.

We now look forward to working with government to assist in the implementation of the Matthews recommendations, and to strengthen Australia’s capacity to defend against and or respond to any future animal disease outbreaks."  



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