Import restrictions have been increased on meat from Britain in response to yesterday’s discovery of an outbreak of the foot and mouth disease (FMD) in pigs at an Essex abattoir. Australia cannot afford to risk the highly infectious FMD entering the nation’s livestock, said a spokesman from the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

Warren Truss, the agricultural minister, added that it was vital for Australia to act quickly in the light of the British outbreak. FMD spread rapidly through entire herds and the AQIS has estimated that the domestic industry could risks damages of between A$5bn and A$8bn if the disease reaches Australian livestock.

The country has been free of the disease, which is characterised by blisters in the mouth and lameness, since the last outbreak in 1872.

Many restrictions are already in place on the imports of UK and EU meat to prevent the spread of mad cow disease (BSE), but these has now been supplemented with bans on the remaining food and dairy products not affected by the BS ban. Canned meat is not included in the ban because the cooking process kills the FMD virus.

Semen and embryo imports of cattle, goats, deer and sheep have also been ceased. Furthermore, travellers from the UK, or nationals who are returning to Australia, will have their shoes disinfected if they have visited a farm in Britain.

Truss commented that the import bans would remain on the UK until the threat of FMD is over. In the meantime, bans are also in place on Africa, the Middle East and certain areas in South America, where FMD is prevalent.