Revelations that Australian customs officials intercepted large volumes of illegally imported pigmeat from South Korea when it was dealing with an extensive Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak last year have underlined the vulnerability of Australia's livestock industries to a serious disease incursion.
In late 2010 an AQIS investigation uncovered a long-term, established supply chain dedicated to the illegal importation of pig meat from South Korea into Australia.
It involved importers, customs brokers and the operators of Quarantine Approved Premises, and involved the resale of illegally imported material at retail level in Australia.
The disclosure is contained in the Matthews Report into Australia’s preparedness for an FMD outbreak, commissioned by the Federal Government earlier this year and released last week.The report provides a comprehensive independent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s existing biosecurity systems, and identifies 11 key areas in need of attention.
The Matthews report said the detection of illegal imports of animal products from South Korea had been treated as a top priority, considering that illegal smuggling of animal products was thought to have caused a number of FMD outbreaks around the world, including the devastating outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001.
It added the large demand for illegally imported animal and food products, and the potentially high profit margins that exist for importers, meant that further attempts at illegal importation were likely.
Cattle Council of Australia president Andrew Ogilvie said the industry had not been aware of the Korean importation incidident until it was revealed in Mr Matthews' report.
“The illegal importation he has uncovered is a worry, and it is an area that obviously needs tightening up,” he said.
Swill feeding (the feeding of food waste, garbage or other products likely to contain unsterilised meat to pigs) was also identified as a problem area.
In order to establish in Australia, the FMD virus had to not only bypass Australia’s quarantine border controls, but also had to be exposed to a susceptible host.
The most likely scenario for that to happen, according to the report, 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 periurban 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.”
The review team identified eight areas that need to be addressed to curb the risk of illegal importation of FMD-affected material.
Included is a recommendation for tighter controls on customs brokers and Quarantine Approved Premises, which oversee the processing of importation documents attached to the 1.9 million shipping containers that arrive in Australia each year.
If the report has one message for Federal and State Governments, it is that greater resources are needed to protect Australia’s precious FMD-free status.
Mr Matthews warned that a lack of resources is limiting the Government’s ability to properly audit Quarantine Approved Premises (QAP) for compliance.
This was of particular concern given that a QAP had been implicated in facilitating the illegal importation of pigmeat from South Korea. In a further warning of the holes in existing systems, the report reveals that at present, no qualifications or professional probity standards are required to operate a QAP.
The erosion that has occurred in resourcing of State agricultural departments was identified as a serious limitation in Australia’s ability to manage and contain an FMD outbreak in Australia.
“Our capacity to sustain to a large scale response, in light of the reduction in the size and capacity of state ag departments, is something that is going to need to be addressed,” Mr Ogilvie said.
“If you haven’t got the capacity it is going to impact on how quickly you can get on top of an outbreak, or how quickly the limited number of people you have will burn out, so we have to look at that.”
Mr Ogilvie welcomed the Federal Government initiative to subject Australia’s existing biosecurity systems to independent and thorough analysis.
“We’re very happy with the review, it is a great review, and a good step forward to protect our industry," Mr Ogilvie said.
“Now that the issues have been identified, the peak councils’ job is to work with Government and to make sure we tackle the issues.
“Probably one of the important things in the report is that the Government has to take a leadership role, and we think that is a very good recommendation to pull the parties together.”