December 29, 2013

Foot & Mouth disease in New Zealand - are we ready?

By Dr Clive Dalton

The 2013 Auditor General’s report clearly shows we are not ready for an outbreak of FMD.  The regular sporadic outbreaks in Asia and Japan are not far away.  Response from the Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI) recognises that we may have problems dealing with an outbreak, but our borders are secure enough to prevent such an event happening.  Yeagh Right!

When Mr Carter (now speaker) led the MPI, he assured us that New Zealand’s biosecurity defenses ‘were the best in the world’. Perhaps they are, but when so many countries (including UK) don’t have a recognisable biosecurity system at all, it wouldn’t be hard to be best.  Better to compare us with Australia that has avoided the nasties that landed here in recent years.

The worry I and my former Whatawhata Research Station colleague Dr Doug Lang have had for 40+ years now, is where would we get replacement stock from when (and not if) we get FMD? 

Have we got our top genetics on ice for the nightmare scenario, when for example, the westerly wind blows the FMD virus from Raglan to Te Aroha and then into the central plateau in only a few days?  The answer is a monumental NO!

Doug and I were involved in setting up the Lands & Survey Romney and Angus breeding schemes on settlement blocks around Taupo in the 1970s, and we always thought that as they were paid for by taxpayers’ money, they should have been the source of a national ‘gene bank’ for an inevitable crisis.  It would have been so easy to take semen from the top males, and ovaries from the old top females that had stood the test of time, and throw them in the freezer as a very low-cost insurance scheme.

But nobody was interested, and now it’s SOE, Landcorp who have joined their genetic resources with commercial company Rissington, they don’t see protecting the country’s sheep and cattle genetic resources as their commercial responsibility. Fair enough.  There’s plenty of dairy semen on ice at LIC but few female resources that could restock the country.

Where would we get replacement sheep and cattle females from – the outback of Australia? And are we happy about having to go back 60 years to start genetic improvement all over again?

This is where the Rare Breeds NewZ is a good resource in their role of preserving minority breed genetics. We are the best country in the world to store animal genetic resources due to our freedom from the world’s nastiest diseases.  But can you imagine trying to get this simple fact through to today’s politicians with a Minister of Agriculture well down the cabinet pecking order, so resources could be allocated for it?

Doug Lang and I gave up our struggle, especially when we got the message from our then MAF Director of Animal Health, not to worry as – ‘Systems were in place’!  When you get that reassurance from a government bureaucrat – be very afraid and head for the hills.

In the last FMD outbreak in UK, there were 60 new cases every day, and it could take a team of 10-15 people over a week to slaughter, burn or bury the stock off one farm.  We simply haven’t got the people to cope with this. The accumulation of dead stock on farms adds to the spread of the disease, as do moving vets as they inhale and carry the virus from farm to farm and have to be stood down after a limited period.

I’ve recently learned about the ‘New Zealand National Biosecurity Capability Network’ (NBCN) and what it’s going to do when the proverbial hits the fan.  Who dreams up these bureaucrat titles? It’s based on a ‘strategic policy’ between AsureQuality and Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI).

I talked to a ‘Capability Relationship Co-ordinator, Biosecurity Services’ in AssureQuality in Hamilton.  He told me how they have been working for the last two years to get ‘willing organisations’ to form agreements with AsureQuality to provide what would be needed in a crisis. These would be things like people (the real biggie), earth moving companies, police, regional and district councils, etc etc. What happens if organisations are not ‘willing’ I wondered?

It was stressed to me that this was a massive job and won’t be finished for another two years.  So what do we do in the meantime if FMD arrives in the Waikato with a load of Palm Kernel from Indonesia next week?  Will all these stakeholders and bureaucrats have things agreed?

In the meantime, if you wake up at night in a sweat, imagining all your animals on a massive great stinking funeral pyre or going into a great hole in the ground dug on your farm – just remember that ‘systems are in place’ so you can rest in peace. I wish!

In the meantime it would pay to read up about FMD on the MPI website and what everyone’s role will be (both rural and urban) in a crisis that one day will arrive unless we really have the best biosecurity systems in the world. Currently the Auditor General doesn’t think we have.

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