New Zealand is well prepared to handle a small outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but a widespread one would present challenges, believes Chris Houston from Beef + Lamb New Zealand.
“I am much more confident than I was two years ago [about New Zealand’s preparedness]. A small outbreak could, in my opinion, be dealt with without too much trouble, but a more widespread one would prove seriously challenging and that is the case for all countries,” says Chris, whose Beef+Lamb portfolio responsibilities include animal health and welfare.
In previous roles, he has worked as a veterinary epidemiologist for the UK government and, prior to joining B+LNZ, in animal disease surveillance and control for the former MAF in New Zealand.
His comments about this country’s preparedness are echoed by Andre van Halderen, FMD Readiness Programme executive, in the Ministry for Primary Industries FMD publication ‘Viral News’.
“Right now, we know that we’re much better prepared for the disease management component of an FMD outbreak. However there are still some very complex areas to be worked through, such as stock in transit, milk collection and the identification of sites for carcass disposal.
“There are also significant areas still to be addressed, for example trade impacts, recovery aspects and compensation guidelines, testing of the operational plans, before we have a comprehensive and coherent NZ Inc. FMD plan,” says Andrew.
There are two key learnings which are integral to the success of the programme, he says.
The first is working in partnership with industry. “Not only does this ensure we have access to the appropriate expertise, we’re also working together with a shared understanding to the same end and are working to have pre-agreed policies in place, so we’re ready to hit the ground running in the event of an FMD outbreak.”
The second is a Programme Management approach. “This is essential if you want to ensure delivery.”
Chris says the risk of a foot and mouth outbreak in this country is very low, but not zero.
“The most likely way NZ could get an outbreak is through backyard pigs being fed meat which was illegally imported from a country that has FMD – this is believed to be what happened in the UK in 2001.
“For this reason, the industries have been seeking tighter regulation of the practice of feeding waste food to pigs and for the owners of all FMD susceptible species, including pigs, to be required by law to register with Ministry for Primary Industries’ biosecurity database, FarmsOnline.
“Having better information on the location of livestock farms was a key recommendation of the Anderson inquiry into the 2001 FMD outbreak in the UK.”
A 2015 /16 work programme has recently been agreed by MPI and industry groups and part of this will be a project to define what level of preparedness can be considered sufficient.
“As with many things, preparedness for FMD is a trade-off between the extremes of being completely unprepared and investing huge amounts of resources into capability that may never be required.”
Chris says getting this “baseline” capability adequately developed will be extremely important for the industries to see prior to them making decisions about whether or not to enter into MPI’s biosecurity responsibility and cost sharing scheme known as Government Industry Agreements.
The 2013/14 FMD Preparedness Programme put a good number of “runs on the board” but all those involved recognise there is more to do.
“Big areas that are a focus for this year and next include developing compensation and recovery arrangements and determining what can be achieved with other countries to limit the trade impacts that would occur following detection of FMD in New Zealand.
“The industries are looking at what more should be done to raise awareness of FMD, and biosecurity more generally, among farmers and the public.”
There are also a number of biosecurity projects that are relevant to FMD underway that do not form part of the FMD work programme.
A good example of one of these is the development and trialling of electronic Animal Status Declarations (known as eASDs), which are mandatory for all animal movements and are currently paper based.
“This has the potential to provide centralised animal tracing data for species such as pigs, sheep and goats that are not part of the NAIT scheme.
“For a highly infectious disease such as FMD, having data on movements of groups of animals between farms is much more important than knowing where any individual animal has gone, which is really only required for long incubation diseases such as BSE and bovine TB. A functioning eASD scheme could significantly improve our tracing capability without the huge costs associated with ear tagging all other stock.”
Should there be an outbreak of the disease, its impacts would affect farmers and wider rural communities so welfare and recovery projects are very much part of the planning.
Chris says it is expected that the Rural Support Trust, Federated Farmers, Young Farmers and others would be very active in supporting farmers and the communities.
“The industry organisations like B+LNZ and DairyNZ would also assist, but their focus is more likely to be on the disease control effort and trade issues, which is where their expertise and resources would be more useful.”
As well as Beef + Lamb, other livestock industry representative organisations involved with FMD programmes include Meat Industry Association, DairyNZ, Deer Industry New Zealand, DCANZ, NZPork and Federated Farmers, together with the biosecurity service provider AsureQuality.