EXCLUSIVE: A MULTI-million dollar Band-Aid is needed to fix Australia's ailing sheep identification scheme, a leaked report says.
The 200-page report, seen by The Weekly Times, gives a damning assessment of the current National Livestock Identification System for sheep and goats.
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Commissioned by Animal Health Australia, the report was released six months ago, but has not been made public until now.
It found the current system:
- Was not capable of satisfying traceability performance standards.
- Could fail to trace stock in the event of a major disease outbreak such as foot and mouth.
- Requires an upgrade of at least $10 million a year to meet agreed national standards set in 2004.
And while state governments are expected to fund most of the improvements, the report has also questioned whether they would commit.
Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said protecting the state's livestock industry from disease was of the "utmost importance".
But Sheepmeat Council of Australia president Kate Joseph said it was "not appropriate" to comment on the report as its findings were still being considered. The Victorian Department of Primary Industries also declined to comment.
The report assessed five options, including upgrading the current visual-tag based system, introduced in 2005, and electronic tagging.
It said the visual-tag system could work, but "full traceability would be costly, particularly in terms of labour".
"To effectively comply with full traceability would require significant and ongoing labour resources to address the current system deficiencies," the report said.
Ms Joseph said the Sheepmeat Council supported the current visual-tag system "with enhancements".
"We believe traceability is very important - if everyone did their bit, then we can achieve the outcomes required using an enhanced visual-tag system," she said.
Ms Joseph said the enhanced visual-tag system had the highest benefit-cost ratio.
"We are waiting on more information and have had no discussion yet on who will fund any enhancements to the current system," she said. "But everything is on the table."
Mr Walsh said sheep and goat identification played a vital role in guarding Australia against exotic animal diseases.
He said Victorian livestock producers led the nation in embracing sheep and cattle identification to give red-meat buyers "greater confidence in the protection from disease".
"While some issues have been identified, the current system of sheep and goat identification with vendor declarations was a vast improvement on the lack of traceability that existed prior to the scheme's introduction," Mr Walsh said.
He said the Government would consider any recommendations to improve the system.
"(We) will work closely with Victorian farmers, meat processors, stock agents and saleyard operators to maintain the integrity of our traceback system and confidence in our domestic and export markets," Mr Walsh said.
The report estimates the cost of making the current system work would be $10 million annually, based on the size of the current sheep flock.
"To be effective, it is expected that a number of inspectors would be required to visit saleyards on their respective trading days," it says.
This includes provision for 36 full-time inspectors; 16 in NSW, 10 in Victoria, five in South Australia, three in Western Australia and one each in Tasmania and Queensland.
"Monetary and labour resources are said to be limited at state government level for livestock and other rural industries," the report says.
"It is probably that state budgets will be reduced in the future as agencies and governments review their contemporary roles."
While not making a clear recommendation, the report says the industry may be forced into using electronic tags.
"A risk-based assessment suggests the sheep industry might be left with little alternative other than pursuing EID (electronic identification devices) if it is to provide itself with the insurance cover necessary to help manage future disease and contamination risks through an adequate traceability system," it said.