Sharing knowledge between Canada and Australia

By Andrew Heck

Strict biosecurity protocols and closely monitored traceability systems protect the pork industries of both Australia and Canada. This infographic, from the Government of New South Wales, discourages feeding food scraps to pigs – consistent with how the issue is viewed in Canada.

When it comes to mitigating the risk of disease and responding to threats in the global livestock industry, the importance of biosecurity and traceability cannot be overstated. But while herd health and food safety rely on factors primarily related to the conditions of pigs and pork, challenges in these areas are mostly human-created, while solutions are exclusively human-oriented.

The Canadian pork industry prides itself on a high degree of quality assurance, which includes a traceability pillar and biosecurity recommendations. This is a hallmark of excellence respected by our global partners. In Australia, similar accountability exists in this regard, with an even greater emphasis on biosecurity, for natural reasons.

Due to geographic isolation, Aussies have long been keen to protect their country’s unique and complex flora and fauna, and this emphasis on ecology has also benefited agriculture, promoting a widespread appreciation for disease prevention measures. Traceability represents a functional component that supports biosecurity by documenting animal movements and making surveillance possible, which protects the industry and the environment alike.

When it comes to production, Canada counted more than 14 million pigs on-farm in 2021, while Australia counted just over two million. On the flip side, Australia beats Canada by far when it comes to lamb and sheep. Both countries have a considerable beef cattle herd. Despite obvious differences in magnitude, when it comes to livestock species, Canada and Australia remain significantly export-dependent red meat producers, which demands comprehensive and reliable animal tracking.

Comparing and contrasting systems

In late August, Alberta Pork met with pre-eminent traceability and biosecurity expert, Beth Green, who works for the Government of Western Australia and is researching global traceability systems to fit livestock production and handling in her country.

Beth Green, Manager, Livestock Identification and Traceability, Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Government of Western Australia visited Canada recently as part of a four-country tour to exchange information about traceability and biosecurity system design. Her trip was made possible thanks to a fellowship through Australia’s Winston Churchill Trust, which provides opportunities for Australians to travel overseas to conduct research in their chosen fields. She began in Scotland, then moved on to Canada, the U.S. and finally to Uruguay in an effort to bring home a better understanding to enhance Australia’s livestock industry, while offering her findings to those she visited.

Green’s position means she plays a key role in managing the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) for her state in Australia’s national traceability platform, which includes electronic or visual ear-tagging of all livestock, similar to the process in Canada. Tags or, in some cases, tattoos, are tied to a ‘Property Identification Code’ (called a ‘premise ID’ in Canada) and recorded in a central database to track movements, known as PigPass. All movements from one property to another require the use of ‘waybills’ (called ‘manifests’ in Canada), providing information on movements, which is required to be directly inputted into the system on arrival at the destination. Waybills can be accessed electronically or provided manually, depending on how they are generated.

A key difference between Australia’s PigPass and Canada’s PigTrace is the obligation of the receiver to directly input traceability data into the national database.

In Canada, pig receivers are obligated to submit handwritten or typed manifests by email or fax to their respective delegated authority by province, which is then manually added into PigTrace. The federal Health of Animals Regulations, under the Heath of Animals Act, allow a seven-day window for traceability data to be reported. In Alberta, like Australia, the length of time to report a movement is 48 hours, as defined by the province’s Swine Traceability Regulation, under the Animal Health Act. Alberta Pork is the delegated authority for managing the province’s traceability, which is then fed into PigTrace – unique among provinces.

But what about when a receiver is reluctant to cooperate or perhaps does not view traceability as a priority? While the legal requirement is clear, bad actors can sometimes slip through the cracks, unless someone is watching.

“We have worked hard to drive up our compliance numbers,” said Charlotte Shipp, Industry Programs Manager, Alberta Pork. “Many of the provincially inspected plants, representing just a fraction of all hogs, just needed a bit of encouragement and support to see why this is important.”

While paper-based manifests are not always the most convenient option, Alberta is taking steps to pilot an electronic manifest (‘e-manifest’), which has recently been adopted by the Olymel plant in Red Deer and the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Lethbridge. Together, these plants represent upwards of 90 per cent of pigs processed in the province. 

In Australia, recognition of compliance could even lead to better business.

“As a regulator, the government makes available a report that identifies abattoir performance, in terms of traceability compliance,” said Green. “Compliance could potentially be used by processors to promote their products within the retail market, which would ultimately benefit the producers from whom they purchase livestock. If you’re a producer meeting your requirements, you might look at that kind of consumer marketing and think, ‘That’s where I’m going to sell next time.’”

Despite nuances between systems, both countries have worked hard to establish traceability best practices over the years, as their international customers have come to expect this level of detail. Effective traceability is the cornerstone of modern food production, and the Canadian and Australian pork sectors certainly meet that expectation.

Travelers pose a significant risk

For some Australians, a trip to Bali, Indonesia, is a party-going rite of passage; however, the island is known to have Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Should the disease enter Australia as the result of a careless vacationer, it would be devastating for the livestock industry. Screening for FMD upon re-entry into Australia has intensified, in light of this recent increased risk.

Both Canada and Australia have laws in place that are designed to deter bringing foreign food and animal products into the country. But for any casual observer of human nature (or anyone who has seen border control-style television shows), it should come as no surprise that some daring or unthinking travelers still take the risk of facing a fine and having their contraband products confiscated upon arriving at customs, especially via air travel.

African Swine Fever (ASF) and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) are very concerning for the Canadian and Australian livestock industries. Both countries are currently free of both diseases, thanks to the diligence of frontline human and canine workers who figuratively and literally sniff out offending luggage and parcels, including those sent through the postal system.

Earlier this year, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) released its summary of findings from an investigation into the risk of ASF transmission to the Americas. The report concluded that the likeliest form of entry for the virus remains the movement of illicit pork products from ASF source countries. While no ASF-positive pork products have ever been found at Canadian ports of entry, in several instances, Australian authorities have detected and apprehended goods that contained unviable viral fragments of ASF and FMD. While these unviable viral fragments do not pose a direct risk, their detection demonstrates how easy it might be to bring livestock disease into the country.

With ASF present in the Dominican Republic and Haiti since last year, this has been a cause for much concern in North America. While the Dominican is not the top international travel destination for Canadians, direct flights from Toronto to Punta Cana take place on a weekly basis.

In Australia, the tiny island nation of Timor-Leste, off the country’s northern shore, is teeming with the disease, though not much traffic occurs between the countries. When it comes to travel frequency, however, the island of Bali, in Indonesia, represents a significant FMD threat to Australia.

“Bali is the Western Australian winter holiday playground,” said Green. “Despite warnings, some returning travelers are still bringing food with meat from Bali into Australia, which is unfortunate.”

Whether it is ASF, FMD or any other livestock disease, this liability appears to have been adequately addressed by both countries so far, but extreme vigilance must continue to ensure our industries are protected.

Feral species plague the bush

Australia’s natural biodiversity is vast but does not include camels. This one, spotted in the outback near Silverton, New South Wales, is invasive. Image © John O’Neill

While humans are unrivalled in our ability to contaminate what we touch, wildlife, unlike domestic animals, are also capable of moving great distances of their own volition and may be considered the second-greatest threat for transmitting disease.

The wild boar issue in Canada has received a growing amount of attention in the past year, thanks to a combination of industry outreach, outspoken academics and government officials, and coverage in mainstream and agriculture news media. In Canada, wild boar are largely the result of an ultimately wrongheaded attempt at livestock diversification that took place much more recently, starting in the 1980s. They jeopardize livestock, crops and the environment, and there are growing efforts to track, trap and eradicate them across western provinces.

“Alberta is on the frontline of this complicated battle, but we are committed to the cause,” said Shipp. “We have seen the devastation experienced in other places in the world, and we’re working hard to avoid that here.”

A report commissioned in 2020 suggests feral pigs cost an estimated AUD $100 million (CAD $90 million) annually to the Australian economy, with the largest concentration in the northeastern state of Queensland.

But many Canadians, including those in the hog industry, are likely not fully aware of the situation in Australia, including the presence of non-native deer and buffalo species, and even camels.

Prior to possessing a widespread understanding of invasive species, deer and buffalo from Europe and Asia were imported to Australia in the 19th century as game, while camels were brought from India around the same time for transportation reasons. Today, they are a major headache.

Regardless of which animal is causing havoc, it stands to reason that the scientific communities in Canada and Australia have become much more vocal in their efforts to educate the public on why pests are a problem, and it is incumbent upon industry partners and decision-makers to continue controlling invasive species to minimize their impact, wherever they are found.

Commonwealth connection spans continents

Earlier this year, Australian Pork launched an app that assesses the biosecurity risk of any farm visitor in less than 30 seconds. The app and the company that developed it are called ExoFlare, based in Australia.

An obsessive focus on traceability and biosecurity can sometimes come off as overbearing or simply unnecessary, but by concentrating on enhancing knowledge of the system, improving its delivery and encouraging participation, even doubters can be converted to believers.

“Sharing information helps everyone,” said Green. “We all know that there are market considerations when it comes to these things, but it isn’t a contest when we’re talking about animal health and protecting agriculture. We all want the same thing in that space.”

For its part, Alberta Pork has taken away a better sense of how Australia handles traceability and biosecurity, and the organization hopes the information shared back with Australia will benefit that country, likewise.

“It was a great opportunity for us to showcase how Canada is progressing in this area,” said Shipp. “This was a unique chance to create a new connection that will hopefully help us, going forward.”

This spirit of cooperation bodes well for both Canada and Australia, and the recent meeting of minds between passionate industry representatives has proven fruitful in terms of furthering discussion and understanding.