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Foot-and-mouth disease is on Australia’s doorstep. What will it look like if it spreads?

Kim Lane doesn’t just remember the smell—she can almost taste it.

More than 20 years on from living through the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the UK, her memories of livestock being burned in paddocks are visceral.

“It wasn’t like a barbecue smell, because they would have to put hay and build mounds of anything that would allow a beast to burn,” said Ms Lane, who lived in Oxford in 2001.

“It would be like a petrol-y, gasoline sort of smell throughout and, depending on where you were, you would have the soot coming off it as well.

Kim Lane now works in agriculture technology, but in 2001 he was a backpacker in the UK during the FMD outbreak.(abcnews)

As fear grows of foot-and-mouth disease entering Australia, Ms Lane, who now lives in Brisbane, remembers living through the devastating outbreak in the UK, and her memories have only sharpened. The sights and smells of diseased livestock being burned in paddocks have never left her.

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious animal virus that spreads through livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats.

It does not pose a risk to human health, but causes painful blisters in cloven-hoofed animals that are most commonly culled if infected.

Like many young Australians in the 2000s, Ms Lane had traveled to England for a mixture of work and play—living and working in Oxford, then exploring and drinking at country pubs on days off.

a red sign on a country road reads foot and mouth mooreland close don't leave road
During the 2001 outbreak there were bans on moving livestock across the country, and vehicles and clothing had to be sanitized before entering farms.(Wikimedia Commons)

That all came to a shuddering halt when FMD started spreading throughout the British countryside.

Life became an all-consuming pandemic-esque cycle of alarming news reports, supermarket meat shortages, restricted movement, and car tire baths to prevent the spread of the disease.

“It was a constant barrage, like the beginning of COVID-19. It was quite scary,” she said.

More than six million animals were culled during the UK outbreak and the economic and social impacts were felt for years.

Australia on edge

Australia has been free of foot-and-mouth disease since 1872, and the government has been advised the risk of it entering the country is less than 12 per cent.

Two biosecurity related signs on a fence with people walking past
A biosecurity sign at the recent Katherine Show in the NT.(abcnews)

FMD is present in a number of countries around the world, but concern locally has significantly ratcheted up after its spread was detected throughout Indonesia.

Because the disease can unwittingly be carried on shoes and clothing, authorities are fearful that travelers returning from Bali could bring it back into Australia.

Were FMD to make it from airport terminals to farms and livestock, the consequences could be extreme.

In a worst-case scenario, the cost to the economy could top $80 billion.

A pool full of people drinking near a beach during sunset.
Foot-and-mouth disease has reached Bali.(Unsplash: Cassie Gallegos)

“The impact of an FMD outbreak can be swift and severe,” SafeMeat Advisory chair Andrew Henderson said.

“In many cases, it will take years to try to regain that market access for those export products.”

Context is important

The level of heightened concern over a potential outbreak was visible this week, when Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announced the detection of FMD viral fragments [and African Swine Fever] in imported pork products in Melbourne.

Tin of Chinese pork floss product, with smiling cartoon pig.
Chinese pork floss was found with FMD viral fragments for sale in Melbourne.(Supplied: Department of Agriculture)

The context surrounding that detection is important, as viral fragments are distinct from the live FMD virus and pose a separate risk. The contaminated product—in this case, pork floss—would have to be consumed by livestock for them to be infected.

The 2001 UK outbreak is widely believed to have started due to pigs eating contaminated product at a farm.

It is illegal to feed imported meat, animal, and dairy products to pigs in Australia.

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