Safe so far, but foot-and-mouth poses serious threat

With the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Indonesia, the media were quick to point out that should an outbreak of the disease occur here, it would be devastating for our agricultural and pastoral industry and affect the livelihood of all New Zealanders.

The seriousness of the disease is not new as, for most kids growing up on a farm, it is like folklore: handed down from one generation to the next around the kitchen table, conveying the consequences of it occurring here.

New Zealand is one of the few countries that has remained free of the disease, but our nearest neighbour, Australia, experienced an outbreak in 1871-72.

Britain’s last outbreak of foot-and-mouth was in 2001.

Audrey and I went there a couple of years later, and the subject was still raw among rural folk.

They were keen to talk about what became a crisis in Britain, to the extent that the general election was postponed for a month, the tourist industry came to a standstill and all shows, festivals and events, from agriculture to the Crufts dog show, were cancelled or postponed.

It began in Cumbria on a pig farm, where the pigs were likely fed illegally imported swill from the catering industry in Europe, which carried the virus.

(Good on Australian customs for detecting suspect material recently.)

The Government chose to eradicate it by incinerating contaminated animals — although vaccination is effective, export rules would have prevented the export of British livestock in the future.

It is very virulent.

We were told of one instance where the casualties were being incinerated but the fire was not hot enough and the smoke carried the virus, so the animals on the farms which the wind blew across became contaminated.

The first foot-and-mouth cases were reported in February of 2001, the last in September 2001 and in January 2002 the UK was declared free.

Two›thousand farms were affected, 6.5 million sheep, cattle and pigs were euthanised and it cost the economy £8 billion (then $NZ24 billion).

Should the disease reach our shores, the Ministry of Primary Industries has a contingency plan in place — but what would be the consequences if it got into the feral animals living in the bush and mountains?

The cost doesn’t bear thinking about.