News

When ‘FMD fragments’ fuel full blown fears

James Nason, 21/07/2022

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.

Senator Murray Watt addressing agricultural leaders in Canberra on Wednesday, where meetings to review nationally agreed FMD and LSD response plans are currently underway.

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).     

Dead viral fragments of FMD and African Swine Fever have been found in illegally imported meat products intercepted at Australia’s borders before (such as here in 2019 and here in 2021)

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.

“If it is not going to affect our markets, if there is no legal reason to announce it, then why do it?” he said.

“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.”

Senator Murray Watt addressing last night’s webinar.

“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.”

HAVE YOUR SAY

Your email address will not be published.

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.

Comments

  1. Alex Renyolds, 21/07/2022

    The main response to this announcement seems to be one of shooting the messenger.
    The real issue is why are we importing high risk material into this country and not implementing verification procedures to ensure compliance with protocols that are supposed to mitigate risk. In reality it is still an open door policy as was the case of imported Brazilian beef into Australia in the past when they had active FMD .

  2. Peter Dunn, 21/07/2022

    Thank goodness Departmental officers were awake, because you know who/what was asleep at the wheel, dreaming a dream about foreign relations being more important than the survival of several major Australian livestock industries. It is a concern that so much prodding (pun intended) was required to get a response. Let us go overboard to help Indonesia, but go even further to protect ourselves.

  3. John Armstrong, 21/07/2022

    i am bloody angry, on the back of the Ministerial announcement and immediate media storm I had a $207,000 cattle sale cancelled. Who do I sue?

Get Beef Central's news headlines emailed to you -
FREE!