Australia should permit beef imports from the United States, Japan and the Netherlands, a Federal Government review has concluded.
The three countries requested access to Australia’s beef market in 2015, triggering a risk assessment and review process by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR), taking into account biosecurity and food safety considerations.
Two other international suppliers already approved to export beef to Australia – New Zealand and Vanuatu – were also included in the same DAWR review process.
The Department has now completed its final report , concluding that imports of chilled and frozen beef imports from the US, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Vanuatu should be permitted into Australia, subject to compliance with specified risk management measures.
Australia will require that listed establishments in each country have Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Quality Assurance plans (HACCP-based QA plans), and have verified bacteriological testing programs equivalent to Australia and meeting Australian standards.
Still more steps before trade can commence
A DAWR spokesperson told Beef Central there were still some steps to be completed before trade can commence.
The completion of the risk assessment process does not automatically allow trade to commence from the relevant countries, the spokesperson said.
A number of checks and balances still had to be completed before that can happen:
- The animal health systems and production and processing controls in the applicant countries are now being assessed, and imports will only commence if the risks can be safely managed to a very low level that is consistent with Australia’s biosecurity policies.
- Following finalisation of the risk advice from FSANZ, the department will propose risk management measures to manage any identified food safety risks.
- Bilateral certification arrangements will then need to be agreed between Australia and the exporting country.
“Where each of these requirements is met, any trade will be a commercial decision,” the DAWR spokesperson said.
“No set timeframe applies to the completion of steps one to three above, and the timeframes will vary from country to country.”
DAWR said some changes were made in the final report in response to submissions received from interested stakeholders in response to the draft report released in December 2016. DAWR said these changes improved the technical accuracy of the report, but did not change the conclusions of the draft review.
The DAWR said that if new scientific information becomes available, it can be provided to the department for consideration after a risk analysis has been completed. “The department will consider information provided and, if appropriate, review import requirements based on the new scientific information”.
‘Zero-risk approach impossible’
The Department report said that while Australia’s reputation as a safe and reliable trading nation had significant economic, environmental and community benefits for all Australians and was important to protect, it was also impossible to take a “zero risk approach” to imports.
“Zero risk is impossible; it would mean no tourists, no international travel and no imports of any commodities. Australia invests heavily in biosecurity to ensure risks are managed to the lowest possible level,” the DAWR report said.
“Australia exports almost two thirds of its agricultural produce. The future of our agriculture and food industries, including their capacity to contribute to growth and jobs, depends on Australia’s capacity to maintain a good plant and animal health status.
“Australia accepts imports only when we are confident the risks of pests and diseases can be managed to achieve the appropriate level of protection (ALOP) for Australia.”
International trade obligations
International trade obligations under the World Trade Organisation meant each WTO member was entitled to maintain a level of protection appropriate to protect human, animal or plant life or health within its territory, but also could not “arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate” between WTO members, or use these protections as disguised restrictions on trade.
Australia’s “Appropriate level of protection” (ALOP) is defined in the Biosecurity Act 2015 as: “a high level of sanitary and phytosanitary protection aimed at reducing biosecurity risks to very low, but not to zero”.
‘This definition has been reached with the agreement of all state and territory governments and recognises that a zero risk stance is impractical because this would mean Australia would have no tourists, no international travel and no imports,” the DAWR said.
The biosecurity report released in December, covering 10 animal diseases, found that the biosecurity risk from each disease was considered “negligible and achieved Australia’s ALOP (Appropriate Level of Protection) with respect to animal biosecurity risks.”
The US and Japan have both formerly reported cases of BSE. FSANZ has categorised both countries since 2015 as Category One risk status, meaning they have “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”.
Any food imported to Australia must also satisfy Australia’s food laws, which must meet the standards set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, adhere to the food laws of each state and territory, and meet the requirements of the Imported Food Control Act 1992.
US last had access 15 years ago
The US was last able to export chilled and frozen beef to Australia 15 years ago, before a BSE detection caused its access to be withdrawn.
When US beef was eligible to enter Australia, it rarely did enter due to the freight cost and subsequent lack of price competitiveness.
US chilled beef exports to Australia never exceeded 100 tonnes a year, mostly making ‘opportunistic’ appearances on Australian retail shelves during the 1980s and 1990s.
Trade was typically restricted to short windows when unusual currency movements, and production cycles, up or down, in both countries made the trade commercially viable.
The earlier trade was limited mostly to a handful of harder-to-shift specific cuts, like rumps, that tended to stockpile in the US, before being offloaded into the Australian market. Most tended to be sold in bulk, whole primal form, and often not identified as US in origin.
However, the current combination of lower US cattle prices in response to a significant post-drought herd recovery and cheaper feed grains, and higher Australian cattle prices, may create an commercial environment more conducive to US imports.
Red meat leaders say flood of imports unlikely
Red meat industry leaders contacted by Beef Central today said they are not expecting the impending opening of Australia’s market to these countries to result in a flood of imported beef.
Industry groups made substantial recommendations throughout the inquiry process and said the final report’s recommendation was not unexpected.
Industry representatives said that global trade was a two-way street, and it was unrealistic for Australia as an export-dependent trading nation to deny countries that took Australian product under certain conditions the same access to our market under similar conditions.
Prawn experience still fresh in industry minds
However, the red meat industry is also extremely conscious of the recent biosecurity breakdowns caused by prawn imports that crippled Australia’s prawn farming industry.
Red Meat Advisory Council independent chair Don Mackay said it was essential the Federal Government deploys the right amount of people and funding to ensure imported product can be properly managed and risks are as low as they need to be.
“We’re very conscious of what happened with the prawn industry and there is no doubt that the industry is watching very closely the performance of the government in regard to this,” he said.
Asked if Australian beef producers should expect a flood of beef to enter under new import arrangements, Mr Mackay said the reality was likely to be something “significantly less than that”.
“I have been asked questions around the cost and value of Australian beef currently versus other potential importers,” he said.
“It is a long time between now and when any meat might come in, so we don’t know exactly what that comparative might be at the time
“But these countries have all got markets for their product today. It will only come here if in fact there is a considerable economic and commercial reason to do it.
“I don’t think we need to be jumping to conclusions about this yet.
“We’re obviously as a whole industry making sure we put the government on notice in terms of all the concerns and protocols that need to be in place are properly funded and put in place before any product enters the country.”
High-end product from Japan perhaps most likely
Australian Meat Industry Council CEO Patrick Hutchinson said the Department had kept industry informed through the process, and biosecurity officials were confident they had the necessary bases covered.
He said the level of trade that follows would ultimately come down to how advantageous exporting countries see the Australian market.
“It is one thing getting access, but obviously then having products to compete in our market is another thing.
“What we may see is specific products coming in, it is not going to be open slather on sausages or boneless product, it might be very specific products and it has got to be advantageous for people sending it.”
AMIC’s assessment suggested that the most likely trade to flow once countries gain market access would be high-end beef from Japan.
“We are just assessing at the moment, through that assessment we think that would be the initial product coming in,” Mr Hutchinson said.