Australia will undertake a comprehensive import risk assessment over the prospect of fresh beef imports from the US, Japan and several other countries, following the lifting of a five-year suspension in the review process.
The Department of Agriculture has issued a biosecurity advice alerting stakeholders of the commencement of a review of fresh (chilled or frozen) beef and beef products from the US, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Vanuatu.
The assessment is expected to take up to 12 months to complete.
Fresh or frozen beef imports from Japan and the US were banned in 2001 and 2003 respectively, following the detection of BSE in those countries. Japan also had an FMD outbreak in 2010 that added to Australian biosecurity concerns.
A previous Department of Agriculture Import Risk Analysis into beef imports from Canada, the US and Japan that started in 2010 was ‘paused’, on legal advice.
The re-commencement of the review this month follows a lifting of that suspension by the Department of Agriculture on December 8. There is no mention of Canada – originally included in the 2010 review, but which suffered a setback with the detection of a rare BSE case in March this year – in the latest advice.
Since 2009, the prospect of importation of beef to Australia from countries that have had cases of BSE has attracted strong criticism from some quarters in political and industry circles, perhaps most prominently led by Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan.
This week’s announcement will inevitably re-awaken criticism from opponents to the prospect of US beef imports who say it should never be admitted to Australia, under biosecurity and human health grounds.
In backgrounding the re-activated risk assessment, the Department of Agriculture says that over the past five years, evidence that the global BSE epidemic has been effectively controlled has strengthened.
Surveillance shows that the number of BSE cases in cattle reported annually had fallen to negligible or no cases in all previously affected countries, a DoA communique said.
“Considering the global BSE epidemic has been effectively controlled, a number of countries that were previously affected by BSE are now actively pursuing market access for fresh beef, particularly the US, Japan, and the Netherlands,” it said.
Beef Central understands that the access request from the Netherlands relates specifically to milk-fed veal.
Representatives of the department’s biosecurity animal division met earlier this year with industry peak bodies and producers to discuss the market access requests for fresh beef.
Red Meat Advisory Council chairman Ross Keane said that Australia needed to maintain its science-based approach to assessing the risks associated with imported beef.
He said while RMAC did not want to pre-empt the assessment outcome, such imports should be allowed, provided the science supported it.
“When Australia is seeking access to an offshore export market, we want (our risk profile) to be scientifically evaluated against our systems and health protocols– not emotionally evaluated. We need to apply the same standards in this import assessment,” Mr Keane said.
The review announced this week also includes New Zealand and Vanuatu – both already eligible to export to Australia – primarily because it had been ‘many years’ since a risk assessment had been carried out for those countries.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand has assessed all countries included in the current review as Category 1 status for BSE, meaning there are “comprehensive and well-established controls to prevent both the introduction and amplification of the BSE agent in a country’s cattle population, and contamination of the human food supply with the BSE agent.”
That FSANZ determination, in isolation, does not pave the way for trade, however – leading to the formal risk assessment process.
“Access to Australia for fresh (chilled and frozen) beef has been, and will continue to be, a sensitive point in the ongoing market access relationship between Australia and these countries,” DoA said.
The countries included in the review were regularly following-up with official communications from their diplomatic missions.
“Australia has rights and obligations as a member of the World Trade Organisation, and continuing delay of these market access requests or making the process more trade-restrictive than necessary may result in adverse reactions from these trading partners, possibly including a variety of trade retaliatory actions on Australian exports,” the department warned.
The latest review of import requirements has been initiated in response to market access requests from the US, Japan and the Netherlands.
It says the review will take into account current scientific information, international standards developed by the World Organisation for Animal Health, as well as policies adopted by other countries for the importation of beef and beef products. The process will identify and categorise hazards of biosecurity concern, other than BSE, associated with the importation of chilled or frozen beef and beef products. Risk assessments of disease agents will be undertaken as required, the department says.
Heffernan condemns US import prospect
Liberals Senator Bill Heffernan and independent Nick Xenophon have led a campaign over the past five or six years in political circles to block beef imports from the US at all costs.
The Australian Beef Association has also resisted such reviews in the past.
”It’s plain bloody stupid and I’m going to raise hell about it,” Sen Heffernan said earlier.
“Forget about bringing in beef from America, there’s no traceability,” Sen Heffernan told a Senate budget estimates hearing earlier this year.
He grilled DoA officials about potential threats to Australia’s biosecurity system and export market access, due to perceived risks of BSE in US beef imports during the estimates hearings, and previously made claims that Australia had ‘caved in’ on US beef imports as part of the TPP trade agreement discussions.
“We only get the one opportunity at this, and let me tell you, Australia’s cattlemen will absolutely blockade parliament if we go down that path,” Sen Heffernan said.
“If we agree to take their meat, it lowers our standard, our clean, green and disease-free status to their level,” he said.
Trade Minister Andrew Robb strongly rejected suggestions there had been any support for measures in the TPP negotiations that could potentially harm Australia’s cattle industry.
“Let me be clear, Australia’s robust biosecurity regime is based on the best of science and it is not up for negotiation in the TPP, full stop,” Mr Robb said. “Sadly, this is the latest round of scaremongering by people who are prepared to say or do anything to derail the negotiations and to deny Australia the benefits.”
Commenting in an earlier Beef Central article, Cattle Council of Australia chief executive Jed Matz said CCA expected the Australian government to use a science-based approach in assessing the biosecurity risk of any application from countries wishing to export beef to Australia.
He said it was a decision for the Australian government as to whether any product should be allowed in, but CCA expected authorities to make the best decision for Australian beef producers and the country.
For all practical purposes, it is highly unlikely that US beef exports to Australia would be economically attractive in any significant quantity should an import approval be granted. But such an approval would enhance the US’s biosecurity reputation on the world stage, trade sources told Beef Central.
Prior to the 2003 BSE ban, US beef only very rarely appeared on Australian domestic market shelves – occasionally finding opportunistic ‘windows’ when currency swings, US domestic oversupply on certain cuts and other issues made such trade worthwhile for brief periods.