Racing officials warned the government three years ago that changes to quarantine procedures could lead to an outbreak of equine influenza like that now devastating Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said Monday.
The government had received a letter from the Australian Racing Board (ARB) with such a warning in 2004, he said, but defended the action taken at the time, including the use of private vets.
Howard denied that the outbreak could have been prevented by stricter quarantine guidelines.
"Because of the views of the breeders, arrangements were made for private sector vets to be involved in the process but they were acting under the supervision of government vets," Howard told reporters in Sydney.
"We were satisfied, at the time, that that was a proper arrangement," he said.
"What has caused this latest outbreak, we don't know. We don't want to jump to conclusions about what happened here."
Howard was responding to a report in The Australian newspaper saying the ARB wrote to then agriculture minister Warren Truss in 2004 and 2005 warning planned changes to procedures posed a potential risk, particularly the use of private veterinarians.
The newspaper reprinted a 2004 letter signed by then board chairman Andrew Ramsden expressing its concerns and opposition to the changes.
"Equine influenza is the exotic disease that the Australian horse industry most fears," the letter said.
"If equine influenza gained entry to Australia, it would close down racing and other horse events for several months with catastrophic economic consequences.
"A quarantine breakdown is the only way Australia will be exposed to this exotic disease."
Equine influenza is a highly contagious virus that is harmless to humans but causes respiratory problems, fever and sometimes death in horses.
In the last two weeks, an outbreak of the disease has brought racing in the states of New South Wales and Queensland to a halt with investigations focussing on a government-run quarantine centre on Sydney's western outskirts.
Horse movement is at a standstill and Howard on Sunday ordered an inquiry into the outbreak, to be headed by retired High Court judge Ian Callinan.
Racing and government officials are due to meet in Sydney on Monday to discuss ways to alleviate the impact on the industry, as the number of affected horses approaches 800 in New South Wales alone.
Australia plans "phantom races" with horses and spectators at separate locations to reduce the economic impact of an outbreak of equine influenza, a government minister said Monday.
"The move would see horses back on the track, with punters able to watch broadcasts," said Ian Macdonald, primary resources minister for New South Wales state.
The idea was mooted not long after the current outbreak began late last month, but now has government backing. Pending approval from a consultative group on animal diseases, the first phantom race should be held this weekend.
The outbreak was first detected last month at the quarantine centre under scrutiny. Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran has said quarantine failure was a logical conclusion to make, adding the virus "almost certainly" originated in Japan.
The virus has since spread to stables at Sydney's Royal Randwick racecourse, forcing the cancellation of spring races and crippling the multi-billion-dollar industry as authorities tried to contain the outbreak.