Risk assessment review of BQ field activities

Late last year, Biosecurity Queensland (BQ) commissioned Australian Banana Growers’ Council (ABGC) R&D Manager Rosie Godwin to conduct a risk assessment into the potential for contamination and disease spread from Panama TR4 Program field activities. The aim was to ensure that all risks associated with field activities had been properly identified and satisfactorily managed in order to reduce the chance of Panama spread to a very low level.  Dr Godwin details the results of her review.

In my role as R&D Manager, the ABGC asked me to ‘ground truth’  [GS1] [SC2] the BQ risk assessment review. Over three days in September, I was able to accompany field staff as they conducted their work and I saw the way these risks were being managed in practice.

I found that BQ’s risk assessment and risk management plan had been developed using standard procedures. It also contained detailed information about factors affecting disease incidence, prevalence and development. This information is important since it helps identify potential pathways of infection, the infectivity of different fungal material to cause Panama disease, and the persistence of different fungal parts in soil and the environment.

Potential contaminating structures of the fungal pathogen include hyphae/mycelia, conidia and the long-lasting clamydospores. These structures can be carried in plant material and plant exudates/sap, which can, in turn, contaminate tools and equipment, people, clothing, boots and soil. Movement of these items can then contaminate other areas and other items.

Risk activities associated with field work that were identified in the assessment included:

         i.            Movement of surveillance personnel onto a property

       ii.            Assessing a symptomatic plant for disease

     iii.            Movement of sampling personnel between sample sites on a property

     iv.            Sample collection, integrity and packaging

       v.            Movement of surveillance personnel off a property

     vi.            Storage and maintenance of equipment

During my visit, I observed the surveillance and sampling staff and found them to be well trained, diligent and enthusiastic about their role in the containment of TR4. I found the TR4 program to be well resourced with good vehicles, field equipment, IT, consumables and staff had access to knowledge and reference material.

The use of a well-designed iPad application linked to a comprehensive database was a valuable asset to the program. This system enabled field staff to do their jobs more effectively by knowing what to do and when. This facilitated traceability and accountability, while the risk of human errors in transcribing data or record keeping was also greatly diminished.

BQ had decontamination protocols in place that were best currently known for TR4. It was difficult to think of ways to improve the procedures. At the time of the review, all but two of the 15 field staff were ChemCert trained. Surveillance vehicles were never taken onto farms and all personal and field equipment was carefully washed and decontaminated several times, especially when leaving properties. Procedures were under constant review, which enabled improvements to be made at any time. BQ was also conducting its own research into testing decontamination protocols with the aim of incorporating results as they became available.

At the time of my review, it was evident that BQ had implemented every precaution that could be practically undertaken to reduce the spread of TR4, thereby reducing the risk of spread through surveillance and sampling to a very low level.  This should provide confidence to industry that the surveillance and sampling activities conducted by BQ were unlikely to cause the spread of Panama TR4.