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How a foot and mouth outbreak would hit meat prices

·4-min read
Meat in supermarket and cow with foot and mouth disease
A foot and mouth disease outbreak in Australia could restrict meat supplies and drive up prices (Source: Getty)

A foot and mouth disease outbreak in Australia would have severe economic impacts and likely limit supplies of animal protein in supermarkets, a supply chain expert has warned.

While Curtin University’s Dr Elizabeth Jackson supported the Government's decision to keep international borders open amid overseas outbreaks of the disease, she said both the short- and long-term consequences would be dire if the disease arrived in Australia.

If the disease was declared in Australia, she said the nation would immediately lose its status as a disease-free exporting nation.

“That disease-free status has an incredibly important value and it's one of the factors that separates us as an exporter, from other countries, for example, like South America, which are burdened and plagued with disease in their livestock,” Jackson said.

She said that would have implications over the medium to long term on the value of Australia’s meat exports.

In the short term, an outbreak of the disease would result in a lockdown in the movement of stock.

“We know that one of the pathways for foot and mouth disease is in transportation systems, so there will be that immediate lockdown of farms,” she said.

Jackson said that would be when Australians would likely start seeing bare shelves in the supermarket.

She said it would be hard to know how long that would go on for, and would depend on how quickly the disease was contained.

If the meat industry ground to a standstill, Jackson also said businesses responsible for processing and transporting meat would be in danger of collapsing.

Shortages of lamb, beef, pork and goat meat might also drive up demand for replacement species unaffected by the disease, such as fish and chicken.

“We need to keep in mind that with any biological product, you can't just create a fish out of nowhere,” Jackson said.

”So we've only got access to particular quantities of chicken and fish in the short term to substitute our demand for cloven-hoofed protein.

“Supply chains, of any product, rely on flows of product and highly engineered quantities of product.”

She said its impact would depend on how quickly it was contained, and noted that Australia did have a sophisticated system for tracking livestock, called the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS).

However, she said this scheme wasn’t mandatory for the sheep and goat industries, which would pose a risk to the tracking and containing of the disease.

The risks should be balanced with probability

Yesterday, Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said Australia’s borders would remain open despite a growing push by the Opposition to close it, arguing that the biggest biosecurity threat was not travellers but rather undeclared meat products.

Watt said mail centres had bolstered parcel-screening processes in response.

"We have absolutely no evidence at all that the virus is in Australia,” he told ABC radio on Monday.

”It does affect our international trade if people think that Australia has this disease."

He said biosecurity measures already implemented by the Government were working.

Jackson said the likelihood of the disease entering Australia should be balanced with the severity of an outbreak, should that happen.

She said the likelihood of an outbreak was sitting around 11 per cent, according to the Department of Agriculture.

“So it's really about balancing the severity and the likelihood, and I think this is where a lot of people are becoming a little bit confused,” Jackson said.

What you can do

She urged Australians to do two things to help.

If there is a product recall, she said people should do as instructed “without question”.

She also requested the general public to be patient with any instructions or rules issued by biosecurity regulators.

“This disease poses a massive risk to the country - while the likelihood of a spread is pretty low, the impact of the disease would be massive and catastrophic.”

-With AAP

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