AUSTRALIA thankfully does not have foot and mouth disease, but headlines that followed yesterday’s media conference by agricultural minister Murray Watt may have led many to think otherwise:
The new federal agriculture minister used a media conference to announce that during routine retail surveillance exercises, Departmental officers had detected foot and mouth disease and African swine fever viral fragments in a small number of pork products for sale in the Melbourne CBD that were imported from China.
He then added that despite this news, Australia still remans free of FMD and ASF.
However, the horse had effectively bolted, as the mainstream media headlines above show.
The Minister’s decision to drop that announcement into a climate of super-charged sensitivity, with the disease on Australia’s northern border in Indonesia, the livestock sector on edge, tourism to Bali being called into question, and mainstream media interest in the topic at previously unseen levels of intensity, has confounded many in the industry.
Throughout yesterday afternoon Beef Central received calls from industry stakeholders both within Australia and internationally urgently seeking clarity after seeing news reports that that “Australia has FMD”.
A number of livestock industry bodies released statements following the Minister’s media conference to reiterate that the live virus had not been detected, that Australia remains FMD-free and that Australian meat remains perfectly safe to eat.
There are also anecdotal reports on social media that some industry representatives urged the Minister at meetings earlier in the day not to publicly release news of the detection of dead FMD viral fragments in Melbourne’s CBD, out of fear it could lead to misleading headlines and public and consumer confusion about Australia’s FMD status.
Red meat processors have confirmed that they have received calls from concerned export customers overnight, having read yesterday’s headlines on their news feed (click here to view today’s second story).
Yesterday’s announcement was the first indicating the dead FMD virus fragments had been detected in meat at retail in a city CBD.
But the Minister’s decision to announce that publicly yesterday at a time of intense media interest around FMD has been called into question, and also prompted criticsm of naivety and scaremongering.
Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association president David Connolly said the minister had created unnecessary alarm by publicly announcing the detection of dead fragments of FMD at a time when the disease threat is so close to Australia’s shores.
“As Federal Minister for Agriculture his job is to advance and protect agriculture in Australia, not to scaremonger and cause fear by naively announcing that we have got FMD fragments in the country and setting off a media storm and panic among customers.
“I have taken calls this morning from live export customers in Indonesia and have had to reassure them that there is no drama.”
‘I thought it was my responsibility to make that information public as quickly as I could’
Minister Watt addressed an industry organised FMD update webinar last night, and mentioned that his earlier announcement about the detection of FMD viral fragments in a small number of meat products had generated “a lot of interest.”
He said: “I was advised of this very recently and I thought it was my responsibility to make that information public as quickly as I could.”
“In short, the routine surveillance exercises that we undertake as a matter of course in retail operations uncovered a very small number of sausage products, imported from overseas, that contained viral fragments of FMD and ASF, African Swine Fever, and when I say very small, I mean one or two sausages or products that contained this.
“That has been detected and we are now in the process of seizing those products from the shelves of the outlets that have been selling them and distributing them, along with seizing them from a warehouse as well.
“But as I said at the outset, despite these detections, Australia does remain free of Foot and Mouth Disease and free of African Swine Fever.
“At one level, the fact that we picked these up shows that our systems work; this is why we do those routine inspections to pick up these kind of things and the measures that I’ve announced in the last couple of days around more biosecurity officers means that we will be able to do even more intensive surveillance of these kind of things, particularly when it comes to parcels.
“Because the advice that I’ve been receiving is that as much as people are very concerned about travellers returning from Bali and what might be on their shoes and that is an issue, the biggest risk that we face is these diseases coming in to Australia via animal products, and that’s why we are increasing the surveillance on it and we’re increasing public awareness campaigns and we’ll continue to do so as well.”