Australian Economy

Is Australia’s livestock contact tracing system prepared for an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease?

Not long after foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was first detected in Indonesia, Brad Inglis made the tough call to close his cattle spelling yards – one of the busiest in the Northern Territory.

“If there is a [FMD outbreak], we’re a high-risk zone with the number of trucks and the volume of cattle that come through here,” Mr Inglis said.

Sturt Plains Station sits on just about the NT’s tick line, 650 kilometres south-east of Darwin, and some years can spell and dip up to 60,000 cattle as they are trucked north or south.

The spelling yards are an important part of Mr Inglis’s business. But he decided to temporarily shut the yard due to concerns about the robustness of Australia’s livestock traceability system.

He was worried that if FMD entered Australia, infected cattle could unknowingly come through his yards and transmit the disease to his own cattle.

“We didn’t panic but thought, ‘Let’s just close down, get a few things in place and see where we go,'” he said. 

The spelling yards have since reopened but Mr Inglis still has a major concern.

“Traceability is my biggest worry and has been for a while,” he said.

A close up of a locked gate to an empty cattle yard.
Sturt Plains Station closed its spelling yards earlier this year due to biosecurity concerns.(ABC Rural: Max Rowley)

NLIS not a ‘national’ system

In all states and territories in Australia, cattle are required to have a tag or electronic device fitted to track movements through the supply chain as part of the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS).

“It’s arguably the world’s leading traceability and animal identification system,” said Troy Setter, the chief executive of Consolidated Pastoral Company, one of Australia’s largest cattle producers with properties across the NT, Queensland, and Western Australia.

The system provides a key role in facilitating trade and market access, as well as contact tracing and disease containment in the event of an outbreak.

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