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National electronic traceability is key to disease freedom

Dr Scott Williams, November 16, 2022

Sheep Sustainability Framework chair Dr Scott Williams.

THE sheep industry here in Australia enjoys freedom from many of the world’s major diseases, including Foot and Mouth Disease, sheep pox and scrapie, which can have devastating consequences for long-term sustainability.

But the recent incursions of varroa mite in the honeybee industry, Japanese encephalitis affecting pigs, and the threat posed by FMD being present in Indonesia, show that our island geography and excellent biosecurity standards cannot always prevent pests and diseases.

There is no such thing as zero risk. It’s critical that the sheep industry remains alert and adaptable and avoids complacency, particularly in implementing biosecurity practices and traceability systems that will guard against incursions and minimise their impact.

Everyone has a role to play, from livestock producers to supply chain participants to government and the community in general.

This means ensuring sound biosecurity practices. Control the entry of people, vehicles and animals onto your property; ask for health declarations for all purchased or agisted livestock; make sure that anyone or anything that does enter the property is appropriately treated or disinfected; and inspect and quarantine introduced animals, to ensure that any diseases or parasites are detected before they join the rest of the flock or herd.

Freedom from disease means we need fewer chemical, antimicrobial and other treatments to maintain high levels of health and welfare in our sheep, and it minimises the impact of diseases we already have, such as footrot and lice, as well as noxious weeds.

And it gives our sheep products an international trading advantage – Australia has a high degree of market access and a reputation for products that are clean, green and safe to use. But it’s the growth in global trade and interaction between countries, combined with climate change, that is expanding the reach of exotic diseases across borders.

The Sheep Sustainability Framework (SSF) has four distinct themes: Caring for our Sheep, Enhancing the Environment and Climate, Looking after our People, Customers and Community, and Ensuring a Financially Resilient Industry. These are not ranked in order of importance. They are all interdependent.

The impact of climate change is closely linked with animal health and welfare, biosecurity and market access. As the world’s climate changes, the industry is facing the impact of rainfall variability, temperature fluctuations, and natural disasters.

As temperatures increase, changes in rainfall and humidity affect the reproduction and geographic spread of pests and disease vectors such as flies, ticks, and mosquitoes. Biosecurity risks from climate change can seriously impact market access and the financial resilience of the sheep industry.

The simple reality is that disease does not respect boundaries. This makes traceability systems like the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) and programs like Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) critical to the prevention, identification, control and elimination of a disease outbreak, and shares the responsibility for monitoring across industry, regardless of state and territory boundaries.

Electronically identified (EID) livestock can be traced with greater efficiency and accuracy than visually identified livestock. The faster that livestock can be traced, the greater the chance of controlling a disease outbreak and minimising its economic and social effects.

An outbreak of an emergency animal disease like Foot and Mouth Disease in Australia would be devastating. Even if it was quickly contained and eradicated, it would still take around 18 months before we could return to a formal status of freedom without vaccination, and regain the market access we have now.

Effective traceability relies inherently on industry compliance and national consistency.

When systems are fully supported and activated, the benefits of improved traceability to biosecurity and market access will accrue across the entire value chain.

The beef industry is already seeing a spreading of insect pests like ticks and buffalo flies and some internal parasites are becoming either more localised or concentrated, or more widely distributed.

We will need to work smarter and more collaboratively, harnessing technology and data to drive biosecurity innovation.

Biosecurity impacts on the health of the flock, the viability of farmers, the reputation of Australia as a premium trading partner, and the sustainability of the sheep industry, and traceability is a key element to ensure we stay healthy for the long term.

To quote Thomas Jefferson, ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’

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