Paul Culliver interview, ABC Capricornia

21 July 2022


Topics: foot and mouth disease; food contamination; biosecurity; foot mats; stricter measures at Australian airports.

PAUL CULLIVER, HOST: Viral fragments of foot and mouth disease and African swine fever have been detected in imported meat in Melbourne. Let's find out how this happened. Murray Watt is Queensland Senator and the federal Agriculture Minister. Minister, good morning to you.


CULLIVER: How did this detection come about?

WATT: Well, people don't necessarily realise but the federal Department of Agriculture, who handles biosecurity, actually conducts routine surveillance on products that are imported into Australia on a regular basis. We obviously conduct lots of checks at airports on products that have been brought in and luggage and things like that. And from time to time, we discover things that people haven't declared, and that actually was one of the ways that we found- well, that was how we found beef products that contained viral fragments of FMD at Adelaide airport. But in addition to that, we also do routine checks at supermarkets. And that's how the pork floss, which is a Chinese-made product, a pork product, was discovered in a Asian supermarket in Melbourne. So it's good that we have these systems, that's exactly why we do them. And it's exactly why we're ramping them up, because we want to try to catch everything we possibly can. But I do want to assure your listeners that this does not mean we have foot and mouth disease in Australia. Unfortunately, there has been a little bit of reporting that has suggested that. What has been found is viral fragments, which almost certainly dead. They're not live virus, and it doesn't mean that we've got foot and mouth disease in the country at the moment.

CULLIVER: Obviously all of the intense focus on this is at the moment because there was FMD detected in Bali, and therefore the line to Australia is quite possible that you could see someone track it in. And I want to talk a bit more about that. But I just want to make clear that the detection here is about products that have come from China. So is that just purely a coincidence, and no relation to the fact that we have FMD in Indonesia?

WATT: That's right, Paul. And it's a reminder that Indonesia is not the only country that has foot and mouth disease. Understandably, there's been a lot of attention on Indonesia lately, and Bali in particular. But there are, I think, it's over 20 countries around the world that have active foot and mouth disease outbreaks right now. Places like China, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Africa, it's in a range of different continents, in a range of different countries. And it's why we can't just focus all of our efforts on Indonesia, because there are other countries that have these things going on as well. The other thing I should say, in terms of these detections is that this is not the first time in Australian history, or even recent history that we have detected viral fragments of foot and mouth disease in products that have been brought into the country. There's been about seven occasions over the last four or five years alone, where we've seen these sort of detections. And, again, just to reassure people, it didn't get out into the wider community on those occasions, and we have no intention of allowing it to happen at this time either.

CULLIVER: So yeah, what is the implication, if you've got viral fragments being detected - and as you say, it's almost certainly dead virus - I mean, what does that mean for the meat? What does that mean for the future of meat detection and monitoring for diseases?

WATT: Well, in these particular cases, or this particular case in Melbourne, we have now seized all products. All of this products, no matter where it's been distributed to in whatever supermarkets and in a warehouse as well. And there is now an investigation occurring into exactly how this meat got into the country. It's possible this involves illegal importation of meat, and we need to get to the bottom of that and prosecute people if it has been. So I think there's a very limited risk, that it's got any further than that. And we'll be continuing to ramp up those efforts going forward.

CULLIVER: Just to be clear, is there a scenario - and not in this case - but is there a scenario in which imported meat carries FMD and that somehow then gets onto our properties gets into our livestock?

WATT: Look, it's theoretically possible, Paul, if, again, if it's live virus, but we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that it is, in this case.  I've had to learn a fair bit about meat production over the last few days, and generally speaking, when these types of products are made, they are heated in the manufacturing process, and that's what normally kills the virus. So it's not uncommon for a virus of some kind to be in these types of meat products, but it's almost always killed through the heating process that goes on through manufacturing. So that's why we're confident that there is no live virus that won't be able to get out more widely. But theoretically, if there was live virus in a product- and you know, the easiest way for it to be transmitted is not so much from Bali travellers coming back with something on their shoes, although that is a risk. It's more through this animal products. So if someone did have, you know, a sausage or a piece of salami or something like that, that had live viral fragments, and if they were to throw a bit of it that they didn't eat into their pig scraps, along with vegetables and other things, if the pigs then ate it in Australia, then there's a risk that it would be transmitted. But again, I can only emphasise it's an extremely low risk, but it's not zero, and that's why we continue to ramp up our measures.

CULLIVER: OK, and so there'll be increased meat testing now?

WATT: Yeah, last week, Paul, you may have seen, I actually went to Indonesia to meet with their Minister for Agriculture and their head of their Disaster Management Authority, who's now managing their foot and mouth outbreak. And when I returned, I announced that we will be spending another $14 million to hire more biosecurity officers at our airports and our mail centres, there'll be able to do more of this kind of surveillance work. We basically are now in a situation where any traveller returning from Indonesia is risk profiled to determine the likelihood that they might be doing the wrong thing. And then they're all taken away for questioning and cleaning and things like that. So yeah, we are putting more resources into this now. But you know, I've checked this with the department - this is actually the strongest response we have ever seen from an Australian Government to a biosecurity episode. The measures that we've put in place with the more funding the more personnel, detector dogs, and now foot mats at airports, some of those things have never been done in Australian history.

CULLIVER: Murray Watt, the federal Agriculture Minister is your guest this morning, talking through Australia's response to foot and mouth disease. Can you just talk me through those mats? These are not the foot baths that members of the LNP, and other people, have called for? What exactly are these citric foot mats?

WATT: Yeah, we announced this yesterday, Paul. And really the point of doing that is having already put in place the major measures that we need to do from a biosecurity point of view, we've now moved on to some of the other things that complement those measures. And what we're in the process of doing is rolling out sanitised foot mats - so sanitised with citric acid - to every international airport in Australia, so that people when they are coming off flights from Indonesia, where there is the major risk, they will walk through those mats, they will roll their luggage through those mats, as you do. And the point of the citric acid is that it helps dislodge dirt that's on people shoes. The mats we're talking about are a sort of those very heavy wearing rubber mats with spikes in them. So the combination of those spikes and the citric acid will dislodge the soil from people. But it's important to realise this is not the sole measure, this is not the only thing that we're doing, and it won't solve the problem on its own. We went with foot mats rather than foot baths because the advice to me from our biosecurity experts was that they're about the same level of effectiveness, but they're a lot more practical in an airport setting. The problem was foot baths is that the chemicals that you need to use in a foot bath for them to be effective are the kinds of things that really shouldn't go in contact with people's skin. A lot of travellers coming back from Bali, are wearing thongs or sandals or even running shoes, and you're not really wanting to get your feet in them for up to half an hour, let me assure you. So foot mats deliver the same level of protection as foot baths, but they're a lot more practical in an airport setting without having water sloshing around and all the rest of it.

CULLIVER: An issue that I understand you may have been discussing with other agriculture ministers. So with cattle, there's much higher traceability, they have ear tags. The issue goes to goat and sheep - much harder to track. What are you doing on that front?

WATT: Yeah, we had a really good meeting yesterday between myself and all of the state and territory Agriculture Ministers. It's the first one of these meetings that's happened for about eight or nine months, these meetings pretty much fell away under former Government. And we all had an extremely productive discussion about what we can do to ramp up our biosecurity measures together. Sheep traceability is an important part of that. As you say, we've now got a system across the country where cattle, basically, have an electronic tag in their ears that makes sure that you can trace which cattle have been where if you were to experience some kind of biosecurity outbreak. But we haven't got that system in place for sheep at the moment. A couple of the states have been resisting that up until now. But I was really pleased that yesterday, we basically reached agreement that we are going to roll this out nationwide. We've now got to work through who's going to pay for it, how it's going to be done and things like that. But for the first time, we've been able to get agreement between all state and territory governments and the federal government that this is something we should do. It's something that sheep producers have been calling for for a long period of time, because it's another really important biosecurity step. And it's important with FMD because it can affect sheep as well. And we need to do everything we can to keep it under control.

CULLIVER: What more are you asking me of producers across the country? For anyone listening this morning that works with livestock, what do you need them to do?

WATT: Yeah, look, I've been having really great and useful discussions with both individual farmers and farm groups including, you know, Will Wilson from Ag Force, based there in Central Queensland among others. And I know that most farmers are doing exactly the right thing because they know their livelihoods are on the line when it comes to biosecurity, but I'd be encouraging everyone to really follow their biosecurity plan. If they hadn't got foot baths and things like that in place at their properties, then it's a pretty good idea to put them in place. Because let's face it, there's more risk of getting into the livestock industry at the farm gate than there is at an airport. So any measure that people possibly can take to lift their own biosecurity standards that their own farms, that is a really good thing and I'd encourage it. But we'll keep working with farm groups. There's lots of good information available for farmers on the Department of Agriculture website, the NFF website, the Animal Health Australia website, if people are needing more advice about what to do and what to look out for. And certainly if anyone sees anything on their farm that worries them, and particularly blistering, which is what happens when animals get foot and mouth disease, then they should report it immediately. People don't need to be in fear that their livelihoods will go if they declare something that they've noticed. We will have compensation schemes in place for people. And you know, God forbid, if this were to get into Australia, we want to be on top of it as quickly as we can.

CULLIVER: Minister, I've just had a text message saying if the foot mats are so good, why did it take so long to introduce them?

WATT: I actually directed my department to get working on some solution around footwear pretty much as soon as the outbreak got to Bali. Obviously you can't just roll down to Bunnings and pick up a few mats, the sort of things that you'd have, as you enter your house. We've had to put in a special order to a manufacturer to get the particular kind of mats that we need. As I say they've got to be heavy wearing, given they're going to be having hundreds of people going over them a day, we had to procure the citric acid as well. It's not as simple as, as I say, just going down to Bunnings and picking up a few mats and throwing them at an airport. We've had to negotiate this with airports and airlines, who I have to say have been very cooperative. But you know, I think you know, to get these in place, within a couple of weeks of that outbreak getting to Bali is not a bad thing. And frankly, this outbreak was in Indonesia before we were elected, and we didn't even have foot mats in place until we took office and I've been involved. So of course, you'd always like these things to happen sooner but the fact that we've got them being rolled out within a couple of weeks is a real testament to the hard work that Department's put in.

CULLIVER: And did you throw your shoes away before you came back to Australia.

WATT: I didn't but I only spent- I think it was 29 hours in Jakarta. I can assure you I didn't go anywhere near an animal other than what was sitting on my plate when I was eating dinner. But I certainly did put myself through the processes that would apply to a risky traveller, both pairs of shoes that I took were thoroughly cleaned. I was certainly asked a lot of questions and my luggage was examined. And that also gave me great confidence that we've got the systems in place to pick these things up.

CULLIVER: All right, well look, yeah, obviously an issue of much concern here in Central Queensland so I really appreciate the time to talk through all of this. Thank you.

WATT: No worries Paul, and I totally understand how serious it is and how worrying it is for people. But we've all got a role to play here and I'll do my bit and all we can do is ask everyone in the public to do their bit as well.

CULLIVER: All right Minister, thanks for your time.