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.
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.
But Mr Inglis said he was concerned about inconsistent rules and procedures for tracing cattle movements between states and territories.
“The biggest thing for me is industry. We’re all affected if something happens, it’s not just us here at our yards and our herd – it’s everything,” he said.
“It needs to be a national system, not ‘this state does it one way’, or ‘that state does it another way’.
“They’re all claiming it to be so important, but I think it needs to be a lot better – more thorough.”
Mr Inglis claimed cattle were not being scanned in and out of some interstate spelling yards during transit, which exposed a weakness in the traceability system.
“[In some cases], I’m the last signature on a piece of paperwork from here through to as far as Singleton in NSW or further,” he said.
“There’s no reading in on the database, there’s no paperwork. It’s just; unload, reload and go. So that’s a bit worrying.”
“I just can’t see how there’s [no traceability] between here and the point of kill 3,000km away.”
Mr Setter said he shared some concerns about how the system would work in a major disease outbreak.
“It’s never been tested with a big disease outbreak challenge like foot-and-mouth or lumpy skin,” he said.
“It’s so important that we do theoretical testing and incursion testing on the system as soon as possible to ensure that it can handle it.”
‘Breaks in the chain’
Mr Setter said knowing exactly where cattle had been was “absolutely crucial” in the event of a disease outbreak.
“If we can’t identify where animals are, what they are, where they’ve been in contact with, within a matter of hours, the risk of the highly contagious disease, like FMD, spreading rapidly through Australia is real,” he said.
“If we don’t move fast enough … we could be locked out of markets for many years … [causing] multi-billion-dollar economic loss and social loss to the Australian economy — not just Australia’s cattle, sheep and goat producers.”
Katherine livestock agent Leo Ballantine said enforcing compliance was a key challenge to address “breaks in the chain”.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the NLIS system, it’s just the processes aren’t being followed,” he said.
“People just aren’t doing their job properly.”
Mr Setter said it was time to move to “absolutely clear national standards” for traceability.
“I appreciate that there’s state-based legislation, but it’d be really good to see each state implement and manage off the exact same standards for the movement, transport and recording of animals,” he said.
“And for our smaller livestock producers who don’t have an electronic reading device on their property, we need to solve how they establish and put cattle onto the database.”
Reforming the NLIS
“The issues and inconsistencies in our traceability system have been well-known for a long period of time,” said Andrew Henderson, chair of industry and government group SafeMeat.
In 2020, SafeMeat presented the federal government with NLIS reform recommendations, including for a new national regulator to be established and funded to oversee traceability, which has currently been the responsibility of states.
One of the advisory group’s recommendations is set to be implemented; a new requirement for farmers to individually tag sheep and goats with electronic identification tags from January 1, 2025.
Mr Henderson said he was optimistic about further reform.
“If you’d asked me if there was enough being done six or 12 months ago, you would have had to have said, ‘No, I don’t think so, we need to be moving a lot quicker.'”
“But since [the FMD outbreak] so close to our northern border … that has made everybody in the community much more alive to the impact … not just to the red meat and livestock sector or rural and regional Australia, but the national economy more broadly.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said:
“The Australian government is responsible for export trade and the necessary systems to support it, and industry uses traceability systems for commercial outcomes and to meet regulatory requirements,” the spokesperson said.
“The Australian government, working with states and territories, and the NLIS provider Integrity Systems Company, adopt a continuous improvement approach to our world-class systems to ensure we remain world-leading and can meet the future challenges and needs for our national biosecurity and economic trade outcomes.”