Virus biosecurity timebomb for Queensland

Virus biosecurity timebomb for Queensland

29 July 2022 Authored by: Leanne O'Neill   |   Topics: Agribusiness, Compliance and corporate governance, Customs law, Planning and environment

If Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) reaches Australia, the economic losses would be devastating. Biosecurity has never been more critical, from the borders to the farm gates.

Experts agree that the potential fall in agricultural production as a consequence of an FMD outbreak could negatively affect Australia’s exchange rate by approximately 2.5%.

Nationwide, nearly 34,000 people would lose their jobs. Nearly $1.1 billion would be wiped from the Queensland economy, which represents a significant portion of Australia’s $32 billion red meat industry. It would cost the cattle industry $80 billion over a decade, simply because Australia would lose its FMD-free designation, which it has maintained for over 100 years.

So, what are your rights and obligations as a pastoralist and agriculturalist in Queensland under the Biosecurity Act 2014?

What do you do if you detect or suspect FMD?

You are legally required to report FMD as a notifiable disease in all states and territories. A report must be made to a veterinarian or the state or territory’s department of primary industries or agriculture by phoning the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.

In addition to mandatory reporting, you will need to consider what your legal and financial exposure is in relation to:

  • contracts, agreements and licences you have with distributors, persons coming on to the farm (such as compensation and conduct agreements with gas and resources companies, employees and sub-contractors) and whether those agreements can be complied with and, if not, what the consequences will be
  • impacts this will have on any business and land valuations – for example, associated with compensation agreements, rent and mortgages
  • whether you have any liability to other producers or persons in the supply chain
  • insurance
  • farm and biosecurity management during and after notification.

And, importantly, this industry is made of people – lots of people. As a landowner and business owner, you will need to inform your family, staff, contractors and transport operators, and this will require a conversation or written correspondence. In communicating with people as part of your obligation as a landowner and employer, you owe a duty to ensure that you understand your legal obligations to prevent any miscommunication in what would be a very difficult time.

What will the government do if FMD is detected in Australia?

The Australian Veterinary Emergency Plan (AUSVETPLAN) will be implemented. This contains the nationally‑agreed approach for the response to FMD or similar biosecurity incursions, such as Lumpy Skin Disease, in Australia.

Following suspected or real cases, a national livestock standstill will be imposed on all species susceptible to FMD for at least 72 hours. The potential response measures to be implemented will depend on the extent of the biosecurity incident. This may include quarantining premises, contact tracing, destruction of affected livestock, vaccination and permits regulating transportation of livestock, and would likely shut down the export industry until eradicated.

If this occurs you will need to consider:

  • whether you can comply with contracts, licences and agreements you have in the supply chain and, if not, what are your options
  • who can access your property and under what conditions – this may impact both your and the other parties’ ability to comply with agreements, such as compensation and conduct agreements with petroleum/gas and resources companies, agistment agreements, leases and licences.

Farm biosecurity and excluding persons from entry

Given the catastrophic implications of FMD, it is critical for agriculturalists to understand their biosecurity rights and obligations to protect their businesses.

All livestock producers should be proactively planning biosecurity management. Section 23 of the Act imposes a general biosecurity obligation on everyone to take all reasonable and practicable measures to prevent or minimise the biosecurity risk, however, doing the minimum required to comply with this duty is unlikely to be enough to protect the biosecurity of a property.

All registered biosecurity entities (i.e. livestock producers) should carefully consider registering a biosecurity management plan under the Biosecurity Regulation 2016. Everyone, unless they are permitted to enter a place under the Act, must comply with a biosecurity management plan if it has been implemented on a property where there is also a registered biosecurity entity. The penalty for failure to comply with a biosecurity management plan can be:

  • if the offence is not an aggravated offence, up to $143,750 or one year’s imprisonment for a breach in relation to FMD
  • if the offence is an aggravated offence, up to $431,250 or three years’ imprisonment.

You should also:

  • consider whether current contractual arrangements around wash downs, farm movement, biosecurity declarations and similar matters are sufficient, including in relation to any access or compensation and conduct agreements with petroleum and mining companies
  • ensure all vehicles and persons that enter the property are clean of any soil or vegetative matter and, if not, exclude entry
  • put persons entering the property on notice regarding biosecurity management practices and require them to indemnify you in the event they fail to comply with your biosecurity management practices
  • where the biosecurity risk is considered significant, consider what your legal rights are to prevent inter-farm access, such as that used on linear infrastructure, including roads.

Given the financial, personal and legal implications, contractual arrangements that may be deficient will need to be actively managed to prevent biosecurity outbreaks on your property.

For example, if your property has an unfenced public access road going through it, then you may need to implement one of a variety of options to ensure you can comply with your biosecurity obligations and to enforce your rights to protect your business from biosecurity outbreaks.

If the last two and a half years and COVID have taught us anything, it is that Australia cannot isolate itself from the rest of the world. However, with enough foresight and appropriate planning, you can lessen those impacts and minimise impacts to your business from an outbreak of FMD. If you would like advice regarding your biosecurity obligations or what you can do to be better prepared for an FMD outbreak, please contact Leanne O’Neill.

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This publication is for information only and is not legal advice. You should obtain advice that is specific to your circumstances and not rely on this publication as legal advice. If there are any issues you would like us to advise you on arising from this publication, please let us know.