December 29, 2013

Foot & Mouth disease in New Zealand - complacency over risks

By Dr Clive Dalton

Up to the 1980s, MAF had an army of Livestock Officers working from every town office testing cattle for Tb and Brucellosis. They were our watchdogs for anything abnormal that they saw on farms, which could have been the first signs of exotic disease like foot and mouth.

MAF also had full-time veterinarians in the district offices to supervise the Livestock Officers’ work, and backed by our MAF admin staff, we held regular on-farm exercises to respond to an exotic disease incident. 

We practised total lockdown of animals, people, pets and vehicles – all with police backing. We were never popular, which I knew well being involved with the media liaison.  After an exercise we had detailed debriefings by all involved, which were scary, but at least we learned what we could be in for.

But all this went down the bureaucratic offal hole with the spawning of State Owned Enterprises in the late 1990s, which had to make a profit for government shareholders – the public. 

Private veterinarians were given a greater role in disease surveillance for government, and a 0800 number was provided if you saw any slobbering or lame animals.  The trouble with this was that vets didn’t have the same coverage or right to walk on to farms which the MAF livestock officers had, as acting like a policeman wasn’t good for their future client relations or business.

So self-regulation claimed the day, and recent examples of its success don’t bear listing. The scary feature of recent events has been the delay seen in action, and poor communication between the major bureaucracies. Delays of weeks and even months between tests and actions have been the norm. 

With a virus like Foot and Mouth (FMD) spreading blowing on the wind, delay and a good westerly wind could see all farm animals infected between Raglan and Te Aroha (or even further afield) in a few days.  Birds and vermin would add their unwelcome and uncontrollable contribution to this spread, as animal carcases would be a great food source for them.

FMD is now an increasing possibility with increased tourism (and the risk of people smuggling ethnic food), larger ships carrying more containers and more pressure at ports, more yachts arriving at exotic bays and islands, and Palm Kernal Expeller (PKE) with freeloaders coming from Asia where FMD is endemic.

And then there are pigs.  Who would know where all the backyard and wild pigs are in New Zealand?  Sadly Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI) would never be able to find out, and few of these pigs would ever see a veterinarian or a meat inspector, allowing pigs and their meat ending up anywhere before an exotic disease was officially diagnosed and restrictions brought in.

What’s more, who is ensuring that all garbage including meat is cooked to the required 100°C for at least an hour according to the law? Registered commercial pig farmers are no problem, as they don’t tend to feed garbage, it’s the backyard piggeries that are the problem.

MAF Livestock Officers always had good local contacts to locate non-registered pig keepers, and pub talk after a day’s TB testing (with the MAF car parked out of sight) was an invaluable tool to know what was going on in the pig world.

Pigs fed uncooked garbage are a guaranteed source of FMD as they are the great incubators and spreaders of the virus, unlike cattle, sheep and deer. 

When (and not if) we get FMD, it’s highly likely to be an Asian strain and our European customers (where they vaccinate as FMD is endemic) wouldn’t want this risk. So they’ll use this as a great opportunity to delay restarting trade, simply by refusing to accept our renewed disease free status.  They’ll just keep on demanding more time and more documentation – easily for years.  It could end up like apples to Australia – taking decades.

The size of a clean up, even if we use vaccination and lose New Zealand’s disease free status, would be massive.  Finding people, coal, railway sleepers and machinery to burn and bury just Waikato’s one million dairy cows would be frightening. Imagine having an outbreak which could spread through the whole of the North Island?  The environmental impact on ground water of having all these buried carcasses doesn’t bear thinking about.

In the last UK outbreak there were 60 new outbreaks each day, and by the time the teams could get cows burned or buried, they’d blown up to twice their size to make the job even harder.  This handling can further spread the virus, as can veterinarians who have to stand down after a few days work.  Dead stock have to be moved in totally sealed trucks – so hopefully MPI have a fleet of those parked somewhere.

The other area of great concern to farmers is the practice of slaughtering healthy animals well ahead of the spread to form a buffer zone.  This is based on sophisticated computer predictions, which the last UK outbreak showed had a large margin of error. Despite the fact farmers were paid full value for their animals, it was still a very upsetting experience for those involved.

Assuming that a clean up would eventually come to an end, at a cost to the economy that nobody dare predict, the really big concern is where would be get enough female genetics to restock our farms? 

LIC is well stocked with quarantined bull semen, but they don’t have a contingency plan as far as I can see to provide females to put semen into.  Neither is there a stockpile of frozen ovaries and embryos for any of our top farm livestock.  A few wise beef and sheep stud breeders have made small provisions of semen and ovaries from their top animals, but they could never provide enough for a national crisis.

It’s very hard to find people to discuss this question with, assuming presumably that the worst will never happen.  One minute organisations involved with our farm livestock are skiting about having the best genetics in the world, and then apparently assume that when millions of them go up in smoke or into large holes, females with the same genetic merit will mysteriously appear out of thin air to be mated and carry on where we left off!

I’m not holding my breath for any farming organisation volunteering to start a National Gene Bank to save our farm livestock, the nation’s farmers and the economy, as CEOs will rightly argue that it’s not their organisations’ core business.  

The need cries out for government leadership and investment.  But who would listen?  An old MAF mate and I have chewed plenty of ears over the last 40 years and failed.  We could make a good start with the $40million of government money promised for the next America’s cup attempt!

It’s only when you’ve lived through a FMD outbreak and remember the loss of valuable farm and companion animals, the resulting human devastation and suicides, the stink of burning flesh, enormous holes being filled by convoys of trucks, roads clogged by rubber neckers and the silence in the countryside, that you realise how ill prepared we are to face a FMD nightmare.

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