EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Japan's foot-and-mouth disease threat to Australia
, October 16, 2010
Surprisingly, the recent serious outbreak of food-and-mouth disease in Japan, one of Australia's largest trading partners, attracted little attention from the Australian media. Had it not been for a segment on the ABC rural program Landline some six months after the outbreak occurred, it would have passed completely unnoticed.
All this happened about three years after the escape of the relatively mild horse virus, equine influenza, from quarantine facilities in Sydney, which caused massive damage to Australia's horse racing industry and, more broadly, to Australia's quarantine reputation.
The final cost of bringing this outbreak under control - including a lock-down of all horse movements throughout Australia and the cancellation of both the Sydney Spring Carnival and Queensland Summer Carnival - was measured in billions of dollars.
The Howard Government appointed a former High Court judge, Ian Callinan QC, to conduct an inquiry into the outbreak. Mr Callinan presented a damning indictment of Australia's quarantine system, which he said was characterised by incompetence and confusion.
As an island continent, Australia has been historically fortunate to have no common borders with other countries to facilitate the spread of exotic plant, animal and human diseases.
The result is that some of the most serious diseases known to science are not present here, protecting Australia's unique fauna and flora, giving our horticultural and agricultural industries a distinctive advantage over our international competitors, and reducing substantially the cost of disease prevention and control.
This is now being challenged seriously by both the massive increase in trade and human movement, and an international trading regime which effectively transfers the onus of proof away from importers to Australia's domestic industries.
Outbreaks of exotic pests and diseases such as Argentine fire ants, Asian honey bees, myrtle rust, Newcastle disease in birds and ovine Johne's disease (OJD) in sheep - all of them the result of other failures of Australia's quarantine system - have cost us dearly.
There is also a widely-held view that the collapse in indigenous frog species in Australia (and many other countries) since the 1980s is due to the release into the wild of imported aquarium fish, which were not the subject of strict quarantine. Local wildlife, without resistance to disease, potentially face extinction.
Nevertheless, the pressure generated by free traders and the large supermarket chains is relentless. Under their pressure, Australia's quarantine authorities now routinely permit imported grapes from the United States, bananas from the Philippines and apples from New Zealand and China.
Each of these countries has plant diseases or pests in their fruit not found in Australia.
The current attempt by apple-producers in New Zealand, where the fire blight disease is endemic, to force a further reduction in Australia's quarantine standards, threatens the future of our local industry.
It is instructive to look at the impact of the recent Japanese foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, as it shows how suddenly the disease can affect the whole community, and the enormous cost of containment.
Last April, the first case of foot-and-mouth disease outbreak was discovered in southern Japan. By the time the disease was brought under control, 290,000 pigs and cattle had to be destroyed. All movements of cattle were stopped, and the local industry has been devastated.
Additionally, Japan's exports of its high-value Wagyu cattle were suspended, and have yet to resume. Many farmers have lost their livelihoods.
An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia would have even more serious consequences - not just because of the economic importance of Australia's cattle, sheep and pig industries, but because some feral animals are susceptible to the disease, and once it became established, it would be impossible to eradicate.
Under international trade rules, countries have the right to establish an appropriate level of protection to prevent the introduction of exotic plant and animal diseases and pests.
However, in Australia's case, there is strong pressure from economic rationalists within the federal trade bureaucracy, from the federal Department of Agriculture which hosts the Cairns Group of free trading nations, from sections of the media and both main political parties to cut quarantine, which is wrongly seen by many as simply a barrier to trade.
Additionally, our trading partners have threatened trade reprisals if the strictest quarantine requirements are put in place.
In light of Australia's chronic balance of payments deficit, it is madness to put at risk primary industries which are vital to Australia's food security, as well as its export sector.
The Japanese foot-and-mouth disease outbreak is another warning of the catastrophic consequences of the erosion of Australia's quarantine standards.Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.