Metropolitan media reports and comments by Independent senator Nick Xenophon suggesting Australia could soon be importing beef from BSE-affected countries have prompted a new senate inquiry.
The Senate Standing References Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, upon which senator Xenopon sits, yesterday announced it wil; conduct an inquiry into “beef imports into Australia”.
According to its terms of reference, the inquiry will look into:
- “the possible imminent importation of beef products from countries whose cattle herds have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and/or foot-and-mouth disease (FMD);
- the processes undertaken by Australian government agencies in determining risk to consumers and industry and the adequacy of such processes;
- the lessons to be learnt from the recent contamination of the beef supply chain with horse meat throughout Europe and its implications for Australian consumers and industry;
- the likely implications of allowing imports of beef from BSE and FMD countries on Australia’s international reputation and standing as the world’s safest exporter of beef;
- the adequacy of Australian food labelling laws to ensure Australian consumers can make a fully informed choice on Australian meat products; and
- any related matters.”
The committee is due to report by June 17.
Under the headline "Mad Cow countries can sell us their beef", News Limited publications recently suggested that a decision had been taken by the Federal government that would allow the importation of beef from the Netherlands, Croatia and Vanuatu, following a review of their BSE status.
However, the Australian Meat Industry Council, which represents Australia’s meat processing industry described the reports as “unfortunately misguided and out-of-context”.
AMIC said the review released by Food Standards Australia New Zealand last November simply confirmed the BSE status of the three countries, and did not suggest any authorisation to import beef from the countries concerned.
“The certification requirements that these or any other countries need to meet in order to export beef to Australia is separate to this review and those requirements have not changed,” AMIC said.
AMIC said the origins of the issue stemmed back to 2009 when Australia brought some of its domestic retail regulations into line with the World Trade Organisation.
In that year the Australian government announced a revised policy on BSE that established new requirements for imported beef and beef products.
Under this policy, any country wishing to export beef to Australia had to apply to the Australian BSE Food Safety Assessment Committee for a country-specific BSE food safety assessment. This included countries already exporting to Australia, such as New Zealand and Vanuatu.
The BSE food safety assessment was undertaken by FSANZ and included, when necessary, an in-country inspection. The assessment on New Zealand was completed some time ago, while the assessment on the Netherlands,
Vanuatu and Croatia was released in November last year.
Vanuatu has occasionally exported beef to Australia for more than ten years, from an Australian-supported abattoir on a quarantine-protected island.
Denmark is already a major supplier of pork products to Australia, however for Croatia or Denmark to export beef to Australia, they would still have to meet the import certification requirements that have always existed.
“The real interest on this issue is the status of the United States and Canada, the BSE reviews of which remain in limbo,” AMIC told stakeholders last week. “Those reviews will have to be completed and a negligible risk achieved before US and Canadian beef can ever be exported to Australia.”
Despite AMIC’s assurances that the developments do not mean that Australia is about to import beef from BSE-impacted countries in Europe, others are taking the issue further.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon issued a press release following the News Limited report to call on the Federal Government to overrule “the decision by Food Standards Australia New Zealand to allow imports of beef from countries affected by BSE or ‘Mad Cow Disease’.”
“Until yesterday’s announcement by FSANZ, only countries that are BSE-free could export beef to Australia,” Senator Xenophon said.
He said that while FSANZ had labelled the risk to consumers as “negligible”, Australia’s weak country of origin labelling meant consumers could not make a completely informed choice about the origin of products.
“Under our current legislation, a meat pie can be labelled ‘Made in Australia’ so long as the pastry, gravy and packaging is made here,” Senator Xenophon’ said.
“Consumers have a right to know where the straight away whether the product they're about to buy is actually 'Made in Australia', and, if it's not, where it's come from.”
He said the Government had announced convoluted Country of Origin labelling laws for imported beef, but it was unclear whether these will address the problems with the use of ‘Made in Australia’ on labels.
Currently, products can be represented as ‘Made in Australia’ if "substantial transformation" or a "significant component" – over 51 per cent – occurred here.
Senator Xenophon said that these laws could possibly lead to imported beef being treated in Australia and labelled ‘Made in Australia’, even though the beef comes from overseas.
“We don’t know how imported beef will be labelled if retailers in Australia mince it, turn it into patties or sell it as marinated steaks,” he said.
“Requiring country of origin labelling means nothing if the Government won’t close the ‘Made in Australia’ loophole.”
He said the Government had already admitted that imported meat cooked and served in restaurants won’t be subject to the new labelling laws.
“In this case, near enough isn’t good enough,” Nick said. “I agree with Senator Bill Heffernan, who has quite rightly asked why should we take the risk?”