Quarantine processes proved the weak link that let equine flu into Australia in 2007, but authorities insist upcoming changes that will in some cases shorten isolation periods will not compromise biosecurity.
The Australian Government has approved a simpler process for transporting horses to and from Australia, which will be in place for the 2013 Spring Racing Carnival.
Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon welcomed the streamlined horse import conditions, saying the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry had determined that simplifying the quarantine process can support the safe import of horses.
“The science shows that the risks posed to the Australian environment and animals can be managed with the new consistent process,” Fitzgibbon said.
“Up until now it was a bit of a lottery the period of time horses spent in quarantine.
“After a thorough scientific review it’s been determined that horses need only stay in quarantine in Australia for two weeks.
“The new two-week rule will allow trainers and owners to transport fit, healthy and disease-free horses with certainty.
“The consistent quarantine period of two weeks now gives horse owners the capacity to compete in both the Melbourne Cup and Europe’s most prestigious race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe,” he said.
“The new rules will also make it easier for Australian-owned and trained horses to enter in the big racing events on the world stage.
“The horse industry and government have worked closely together on this. Streamlining the process shows we are listening and supporting the industry.
“Of course, it’s not just thoroughbred racing that will benefit, it’s the whole equine industry from harness and trotter to breeders and equestrian competitors,” Fitzgibbon said.
The change relating to the period of quarantine will come into effect in time for the 2013 Spring Racing Carnival, while other changes will be progressively introduced as soon as possible.
The 2007 equine influenza outbreak is estimated to have cost Australia up to $A1 billion, both in costs of containment and lost earnings within the horse industry.
In 2008, a 343-page report by retired judge Ian Callinan was released following a commission of inquiry. It included 38 recommendations for change, which the federal government set about implementing.
Callinan’s report outlined a litany of failings and shortcomings in the operation of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Services that, in his view, contributed to the escape of the virus from the Eastern Creek Quarantine Centre, near Sydney.
“What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them,” he said.
The retired judge said there was insufficient training and education in relation to procedures and instructions to be followed, and no checking to ensure that they were being implemented.
Nor, he said, did the agency have any business plan or other reporting system to alert senior management to these failures.
There was a lack of effective supervision and monitoring of people entering and leaving the station, which he described as understaffed.
He said the station was not adequately funded to enable it to properly discharge its quarantine management functions, and the national program was also inadequately funded, he said.
“There was evidence that, had a cogent case been made for additional funding, the government would probably have provided it.”
He added that those who treated and cared for the horses in Eastern Creek — especially the grooms, private veterinarians and farriers — and the import agents and studs who employed or retained them, must take some responsibility for the failure of quarantine.
“Their failure to decontaminate themselves and their equipment contributed to the probable means of the virus’s escape from Eastern Creek.”
Callinan found that one of the four horses from Japan received into Eastern Creek on August 8 – the stallion Snitzel – was likely to have been infected with equine influenza.
It was also possible that one or more of the other horses from Japan that arrived in Sydney with Snitzel might have been contaminated with the virus but not infected by it.
Callinin also found that that some of the horses from Japan received into Spotswood Quarantine Centre on August 8 as part of the same shipment were infected with the virus, but there was no evidence to suggest the virus had escaped from there.
He said: “The most likely explanation for the virus’s escape from infected horses at Eastern Creek is that it did so by means of a contaminated person or equipment leaving the Quarantine Station.
“The contaminated person or persons or equipment are most likely to have been those associated with the care of the horses while in quarantine.
“Fundamental biosecurity measures were not being implemented in the largest government-operated animal quarantine station in Australia,” he said.
“This constituted a serious failure by those within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and AQIS, who were and had been responsible for the management of quarantine risks and, in particular, the management of post-entry quarantine arrangements.”