News

Colombian hide imports expose biosecurity breakdown

James Nason, 27/02/2014

Colombian hides being inspected by biosecurity officials in Sydney last year. The Department of Agriculture says it has already moved to tighten up biosecurity controls and improve staff training following a serious quarantine breakdown involving the entry into Australia of untanned cattle hides from South America.

An investigation report just released by the Inspector General of Biosecurity details how seven separate consignments of untanned cattle hides from Colombia, a country with a high risk category for Foot and Mouth Disease, were cleared to enter Australia without physical inspection between May 2012 and January 2013.

The report found that the consignments were inappropriately cleared and released by junior, front-counter office staff who relied too heavily upon a single piece of documentation, a manufacturer’s declaration.

The manufacturer’s declarations incorrectly stated that the hides were tanned, a category which does not require a biosecurity inspection.

However, other documents lodged with the consignments contrastingly identified the hides as being as untanned, which a Senate Estimates hearing in Canberra on Tuesday was told should have triggered a physical inspection of the containers.

The Department of Agriculture only became aware of the quarantine breach when it was contacted by the owner of a Sydney cold store in May 2013, four months after the final consignment of untanned hides had entered Australia.

The owner called the Department because he was concerned that the frozen Colombian hides did not appear to be fully tanned and might pose a biosecurity risk.

Biosecurity staff attended the premises later that day and placed the 20 bags of hides they located into quarantine. More bags of hides from the remaining consignments were located at a second quarantine approved premises in Sydney the following month and also placed under quarantine.

Most of the 180 bags of hides believed to have been imported have since been destroyed by incineration by the Department at a cost of $114,051, which included storage, transport and cleaning. 

The Inspector General’s report noted that one bag had been sent by the original importer to a tanning expert in Victoria, but the hides had been deemed by the tanner to have no commercial value because of their state of deterioration. The hides had then been placed in an uncovered skip bin at the tannery for several months until the bin was collected on March 5, 2013, and eventually emptied at a rural landfill site near Ballarat. “The IGB was informed that the bag of hides is buried under 20 metres of landfill,” the report states.

The report also confirms that five bags of the 180 bags believed to have been imported in the seven consignments still remain accounted for.

“It is unclear where the remaining five bags are or whether they were ever imported into Australia,” the report says.

The Inspector General of Biosecurity, Dr Michael Bond, said in the report that regardless of the “inappropriate decisions” made to clear each of the seven consignments, no fault or blame should be attributed to the individual department officers at the front counter.

“Rather, the faults appear to lie within the entry management process and related training programs,” he said.

WA Liberal Senator and career veterinarian Dr Chris Back told Tuesday’s senate estimates hearing he was “absolutely alarmed” that biosecurity officials had relied on documentation alone and not a physical inspection in making the decision to release imported cattle hides from a country with a high risk of FMD.

“I wouldn’t have thought there was a person in your department who couldn’t reel off what the cost to the Australian economy would be of us getting FMD in this country, and I just find it to be incredible that (biosecurity staff) would need that sort of training, I would have thought that would have been a red flag that would have been waved so long and strong and loudly that the junior staff member who just started in the department would have been aware of it.”

Inspector General of Biosecurity Michael Bond said it was clear that mistakes were made, and that the consignments should not have been cleared on documentation alone.

However, he stood by his position that front counter staff should not be blamed.

“I believe that when a front counter, relatively junior staff member, is faced with a pile of complex documents across the counter, there is some pressure on them, and I think they can be forgiven for not picking up discrepancies.

“It is easy for me to come along with the luxury of hindsight and be able to identify where there have been fabricated documents, and there are in my view here, clearly manufacturers declarations and even government certificates that were forged.

“Again I have made the point in the report that in my view the fault lies with the training and the processes that the department has in place.”

Dr Bond said some “useful lessons had been learned” and the department had already put in train a series of remedial actions in response to the 10 recommendations from his report (listed below) to ensure a repetition does not occur.

Dr Bond said he had also concluded that the hides posed a negligible risk to biosecurity because, despite being untanned, they had been treated with lime and “held at such a high PH for such a long period” that, were any pathogens such as FMD or anthrax present, that they would have been destroyed in that time.

 

 


Recommendation 1

The department should finalise its review and release to the public (as soon as practicable) the import requirements for hides and skins.

Department’s response: Agrees.

Recommendation 2

New or revised departmental guidelines, standard operating procedures and work instructions should be communicated, published and available to staff in a timely manner.

Department’s response: Agrees.

Recommendation 3

The department should investigate the possibility of retaining and archiving electronic copies of all import documents used in the clearance process, including those presented at the front counter.

Department’s response: Agrees in principle.

Recommendation 4

The department should explore options to ensure that any manufacturers’ declarations used in the clearance process are authentic.

Department’s response: Agrees.

Recommendation 5

The department should consider providing incentives to encourage the further uptake of the electronic lodgement of entries and accurate declarations.

Department’s response: Agrees in principle.

Recommendation 6

The department should continue to move processing and assessment of all import documentation to the back office, away from the front counter. This would facilitate adoption of a triage system, where complex entries are referred to more experienced staff.

Department’s response: Agrees.

Recommendation 7

The Entry Management training program should be enhanced to improve decision-making capabilities; this incident can be used as a case study to demonstrate the lessons learned, especially in relation to inconsistencies in documentation.

Department’s response: Agrees.

Recommendation 8

The department should consider implementing an additional quality assurance system, where regular random checks are undertaken to confirm that officers are clearing goods appropriately.

Department’s response: Agrees.

Recommendation 9

In any future review of the department’s staff mobility policy, a  rigorous risk assessment should be undertaken to determine the level of expertise required for the Entry Management Program.

Department’s response: Agrees.

Recommendation 10

The department should develop a specific assessment regime for first-time importers of untanned hides and skins, to ensure that the goods have been processed according to import requirements.

Department’s response: Agrees.
 

 

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