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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Viral fragments of FMD were also discovered at Adelaide Airport this week in an undeclared beef product brought in by a passenger from Indonesia.
Detections such as the recent ones have been made several times over the past few years, and the government says the discovery is an indication that biosecurity measures are working.
“What has been found is viral fragments, which are almost certainly dead,” Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said.
While Mr Watt says the biggest risk of FMD entering the country is via imported animal products, there is still a sharp focus on returning travellers.
A host of new biosecurity and surveillance measures have been announced in the past fortnight, including citric foot mats that will now greet travelers at airports.
Two familiar words: contact tracing
Those within agriculture have for weeks pleaded with Australians to take the risk seriously.
Returning travelers from Indonesia are being implored to thoroughly wash shoes and clothes before boarding flights.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) is among those who have gone a step further, asking holidaymakers to throw their thongs out altogether on return from Bali.
Travelers are also being asked to honestly declare any imported items on arrival.
The FMD contaminated beef product from Indonesia found this week at Adelaide Airport was initially described as being a vegetable product before authorities discovered it.
If FMD were to spread within Australia, a multi-pronged response would spring into action, led by the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment and the relevant state agriculture departments.
The fastest, most effective way to stamp out the virus is through slaughtering animals, while vaccines would play a role in a more widespread outbreak.
So too would another familiar pandemic response: contact tracing.
Some farmers are already using technology that could help trace infected livestock — or ‘patient zero’ — within minutes.
They insert electronic eartags in cattle and sheep. Those tags are like microchips or barcodes that give the animal an ID number and send information to a national database.
Sheep breeder James Corcoran simply has to wave a wand over his sheep to scan them for information.
“So that animal, from the point it is born through to the point of sale or slaughter, is traced all the way through its whole life,” he said.
In an outbreak, tracing the livestock version of ‘patient zero’ may still be harder than the farm sector would hope.
It is mandatory for all cattle to have electronic identification but, outside of Victoria, sheep and goat producers don’t have to bother.
SafeMeat Advisory chair Andrew Henderson has been urging producers and governments to strengthen that system. Most states and territories — and the Commonwealth — are now keen to do so.
“So in the wash-up of those types of things, there’s generally a Royal Commission, and no-one wants to be going through that process on the other side of something so significant, having been found wanting and that they could have done more .”
Among the parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic is the broad-ranging impacts a severe FMD outbreak could bring.
Australia’s export meat industry would shut overnight. Jobs up and down the country would be at risk.
In the 2001 UK outbreak, meat became scarce in supermarkets and confidence in eating potentially disease-affected products plummeted.
Livestock was burned in paddocks, in part because of concerns burying diseased animals would see an ongoing contamination risk.
Tourism was impacted as travel to countryside locations was limited to prevent the spread.
“It can’t be discounted the impact that FMD would have,” agricultural market analyst Andrew Whitelaw recently told ABC Radio.
“That’s why it’s really important for people in cities to realize it is about them as well.”
Two decades on, former backpacker Kim Lane now works in agriculture. She wants Australians to understand that the effects of an FMD outbreak would stretch far beyond her industry.
Amid an increasingly heated political debate and suggestions from some in opposition that flights from Indonesia should be banned, Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has called for calm.
“I can understand people are worried about FMD,” he told ABC 7.30.
“I think people should be encouraged to do the right thing rather than be whipped into a frenzy by people simply playing politics.”