Senate estimates committee hearings have shed new light on the scale of the threat posed to Australia’s livestock industries by the recent illegal importation of uncooked, meat-based foods from foot-and-mouth-disease affected South Korea.
In April last year the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service issued a press release to advise that a group of food importers and retailers had been investigated for importing and selling Korean food illegally in Australia.
However the mildly-worded statement drew little attention to the scope or size of the importation activity, or to the enhanced level of risk created by an outbreak of FMD in South Korea at the time.
The illlegal importation of meat from FMD-affected countries was identified as one of the greatest threats to Australia’s FMD-free status by the Matthews report into Australia's preparedness for an FMD outbreak last year. (See Beef Central's November 2011 report here)
Indeed the illegal smuggling of animal products into other countries has been behind many FMD outbreaks around the world, and was thought to have caused the outbreak that devastated Britain's livestock industries in 2001.
Details about the illegal Korean food importation confirmed by AQIS officials in response to senators’ questions at this week’s estimates hearings have revealed just how extensive the activity was.
It involved the illegal entry to Australia of what is believed to have been hundreds of tonnes of uncooked and cooked beef, pork and chicken in the form of frozen food products such as dim sims and spring rolls from South Korea in 2010.
The food was imported alongside legally imported product in refrigerated shipping containers through the ports of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
It was distributed and sold through at least 300 known retail premises in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, including grocery stores and restaurants.
AQIS officials said they first learned of the problem during an audit inspection of an import premises on December 23, 2010.
The department's subsequent investigations resulted in the seizure of 100 tonnes of food products illegally imported from South Korea.
AQIS officials said that information obtained during the investigation indicated that the importation had been occurring for at least 12 months before it was detected.
As an example of the quantities may have been missed, AQIS said that in one case it recovered 4.3t of product from a retailer that was known to have received 13t of product.
AQIS said that 14 briefs of evidence have been compiled as a result of its investigation, with one matter having progressed to trial in Queensland and another with the director of public prosecutions.
As a result of the investigation 14 Quarantine Approved Premises (places, typically privately owned businesses, approved by AQIS to oversee the processing of importation documents attached to shipping containers that arrive in Australia) have had their approvals revoked as a direct result of the case, two had approval renewal applications refused, one had voluntarily rescinded its approval while monitoring arrangements had been increased in seven other QAPs.
Individuals convicted of illegal importation can face up to 10 years in prison while commercial entities can be fined over $1 million.
Why was industry not immediately notified?
Questions from Liberal senators Richard Colbeck and Bill Heffernan also went to why AQIS did not immediately notify Australia’s livestock industry leaders about the threat, and waited more than three months to make a public statement.
NSW Liberal senator Bill Heffernan believed that notification should have been provided immediately to ensure it was disposed off appropriately. He raised the prospect of the disease having been allowed to spread if a consumer had thrown it in the garbage and a pig had come into contact with the material at a dump.
Cattle and pork industry leaders have also stated that they did not learn about the issue until they read about it in the Matthews report into Australia’s FMD preparedness, released in November last year.
AQIS officials said one reason for the delay was the time it took during the investigation to establish the full scope of the illegal importation activity.
Wayne Terpstra, assistant secretary, Industry Arrangements and Performance, Quarantine Operations, said AQIS officials believed that the best opportunity they had to recover all of the product was to not go public with the specific details.
AQIS general manager of quarantine operations Tim Chapman played down the threat posed to the industry and said he believed industry had received adequate notice.
“I think that because of the way that it was reported in the media they (Australian Pork Limited) had a concern that in fact we were talking about large amounts of uncooked pig meat which might have come in, whole pig meat for further processing or whatever.
“That was not the case and they understand that. Similarly, in the discussions I had with the National Farmers Federation, they understood that this was processed product designed for human consumption.
“It was not a clear and present danger to the cattle and pork industries in Australia.”
Senator Heffernan said the importation clearly involved uncooked meat products from a country dealing with a rampant FMD outbreak and therefore did pose a threat to Australia’s livestock industries.
The Matthews report last year indentified the feeding of potentially contaminated food scraps to pigs as a key area of risk.
In order to establish in Australia, the report said, the FMD virus not only had to bypass Australia’s quarantine border controls, but also had to be exposed to a susceptible host.
The most likely scenario for that to happen was for illegally imported food or animal products, to be fed to pigs.
Swill feeding is illegal in all states and territories of Australia, however the practice is known to continue in small farms and backyard operations where pigs are fed household scraps.
“There are problems with the effectiveness and enforcement of the ban among peri-urban and smallholder farmers,” the report said. “This is concerning, given the experiences of other countries where swill feeding of pigs has led to FMD incursions.