Beef import debate heats up

James Nason, 19/12/2018

The question of whether Australia should allow beef imports from other countries, pitting the need to maintain vital market access against the risk of exposing the industry to a devastating biosecurity incursion, has always generated fierce debate in the Australian beef industry.

The battle is stirring again after Japanese beef regained access to the Australian market for the first time in 17 years, and the United States nears likely regulatory approval for it to regain access after a similar amount of time.

Both lost access to the Australian market due to detections of Bovine Spongiform Encephelopathy (BSE) in their herds in the early 2000s.

The debate is fundamentally split along two lines.

On one hand is the argument that Australia relies on export markets to sell 70 percent of its beef and has no choice but to allow two-way trade so it can maintain access to vital markets, but the Australian Government must maintain stringent protocols to reduce any biosecurity risk to the country’s multi-billion dollar beef cattle industry.

On the other is the position that there is no level of acceptable risk to the precious clean and green reputation that underpins Australia’s beef industry, given an FMD outbreak would immediately shut down Australia’s access to export markets, and imports should not be allowed full stop.

Prevailing industry policy takes the view that maintaining market access is crucial and trade access is “a two-way street” which means Australia cannot directly oppose bids from the US or other countries to export chilled or frozen beef to Australia, provided they can meet Australia’s very-high food safety regulatory standards.

In a statement to Beef Central RMAC said the red meat industry recognises Australia is a trade exposed and global player:

“Trade to us is a two way street.

“We firmly believe in the instance of beef imports, the onus is on the Australian government to prove to us that import applications meet the Australian beef industry’s very high standards of production, biosecurity, food safety and product integrity. Anything less than supply chain equivalence is not acceptable.

“This is consistent with Australia’s WTO membership and OIE standards.”

But differences of opinion continue to exist at producer level, with one group this week warning that allowing beef imports from Japan and the United States poses an unacceptable biosecurity and reputational risk for Australia’s beef industry.

Paul and Marina Wright

Cattle Producers Australia (CPA) chairman and Taroom cattle producer and veterinarian, Dr Paul Wright, said a 2013 Senate Inquiry into Beef Imports recommended against Australia allowing beef imports from any country which has reported BSE or has cross-border trade with an adjoining country which has reported any cases of BSE.

Dr Wright said the US had reported four cases of BSE since 2003, the most recent in 2012, and Japan suffered an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in 2010.

“Australia simply cannot risk having our exemplary biosecurity record turned upside down and our industry decimated by a contamination of either FMD or BSE,” Dr Wright said.

“Since we export over 75 percent of beef the damage would be devastating.”

Dr Wright said FMD was a highly infectious disease that had the potential to shut down Australia’s export markets overnight if an detected in Australia.

On BSE he said there was no chance of the disease being transmitted from one animal to another, except in the highly unlikely circumstance of an animal eating part of an infected animal’s spinal cord or brain material that contained BSE-causing prions. However, he said ‘emotive side’ was the concern for Australia.

“What we as an industry have to exercise our minds about is, if for example there was BSE in the US and we are bringing product in from the US, then the onus is on us then to show that there is no chance of any of this contaminated product being in our food supply.

“Now quite clearly, with or without a traceback system we are going to be very hard pushed to demonstrate that, and by not being able to demonstrate it, that will have profound impacts on our industry here.

“It is really the contamination of our biosecurity record (that is the concern).

“BSE and FMD are utterly different, but their effects on our industry can be devastating.”

Australia exported 234,112 tonnes of beef to the US in 2017, worth $1.66 billion.

For more than 15 years the US has exported no beef to Australia.

In March 2017 the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources asked Australian beef stakeholders to contribute to a draft Policy Review of Import Requirements for Fresh (Chilled or Frozen) Beef and Beef Products for Human Consumption from the United States, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Vanuatu.

Cattle Council responded as part of a joint Red Meat Advisory Council submission to the policy review.

CCA said the clear intention of the submission was that “that support of free trade is essential” given Australia’s beef industry is a major exporter and relied heavily on access to export markets, but Australia’s world leading clean and green status must remain intact.

“Our submission recommendations are clear that fresh beef must be compliant with all relevant provisions of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code and the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production and Transportation of Meat and Meat Products for Human Consumption,” Mr Smith said at the time.

“Supply chains must have equivalent robust traceability systems for food recall events to ensure that imported product is safe, wholesome and properly labelled and described.”

To be eligible for export to Australia, fresh beef must be the product of animals born, bred, raised and slaughtered in the applicant country, Mr Smith said, and imported beef must be tested for residues and contaminants at risk-based frequencies no less than those applied to Australian beef.

CCA also maintained that importation supply chains had to adequately demonstrate closed, audited in-country animal traceability systems equivalent to Australia’s National Livestock Identification System.

“To ensure individual animal, whole-of-life, in country traceability applicant countries would need an equivalent closed audited production system to verify that beef exported to Australia came only from animals that were bred, born, raised and slaughtered in the applicant country.

“This is critical to ensure all animals are subject to the equivalent standard of production required in the applicant country and are free from disease, residues and banned substances including restricted animal material and beta-agonists (medications).

“This is essential as beef and beef products derived from animals with supply chains outside of approved applicant countries would not be eligible for export to Australia.”

CPA chair Paul Wright said the issue exemplified the need for the peak industry councils to be “financially robust and represent their industry participants properly so that levy payers can be confident that they have ownership of their organisation and that their organisation is representing them”.

“Considering the total value of imports from the US to Australia in 2017 was over $31 Billion whilst our exports to the US totalled $12 Billion, there really shouldn’t be a requirement for a two-way street for beef products, given the obvious biosecurity risk to Australia and the absence of a credible traceback system in the source countries.”

Dr Wright said he witnessed first-hand the carnage FMD can cause when he undertook two tours of duty to the United Kingdom to assist with a devastating outbreak in 2001, stating that “on no account should these products be permitted to Australia”.

A CPA media released this week said the group had been told by a Department of Agriculture and Water Resources staff member that beef imports to Australia from the United States had been suspended indefinitely pending a formal review and an Import Risk Analysis (IRS) initiated by the American Government.

However when asked about this by Beef Central and a Departmental spokesperson said, “there is no suspension in place and no import risk analysis underway”.



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  1. Brian Gray, 24/12/2018

    Why would the Australian Beef industry even entertain the idea. Its absurd.
    Our domestic markets aren’t broke…Why are we trying to fix it.

  2. Brad Bellinger, 22/12/2018

    Editor, testing 40 000 samples from 31-32000 000 slaughtered in the USA does not equate to mandatory testing. I stand by my statement.

  3. Jacqueline Curley, 21/12/2018

    The Australian beef industry has numerous, onerous, mandatory relegations imposed on producers and processors to protect and supposedly increase our export markets. There must be no room for deviance for any other country to gain access to our market. They have to match every one of these Australian regulations to get to first base or we will no longer have the clean green advantage touted. Imports will open the doors to shutting down our beef industry via “biosecurity” legislated from other countries. Since 1992 the “green” arm of the UN has been picking away to downgrade the Australian beef industry. Read the legislation in the Koyoto and Paris agreements. Do we offer ourselves up on a platter or take charge of and protect our industry. This is crunch time.

  4. David Hill, 20/12/2018

    The view that we can just say no is one that will be unlikely to carry much weight with those we export too and the WTO. There could hardly be an argument against the goal of furthering trade liberalisation globally given the amount of product we export. The EU negotiators that were in this country recently had the hide to accuse us of being protectionist around the pork importation standards in this country, no matter that European pork comes into this country on a no Tarif, no Quota basis, whilst at the time some of their member countries had closed the doors on other European countries because of Asian swine flu. It would seem that if you are requiring equivalency with your own standards you couldn’t be accused of being protectionist, our stance must be based on the fact that we require equivalency with our own standards, this may also be an opportunity to get recognition of how high those standards are. The food safety reputation that we have globally has come at a cost, our standards and protocols are second to none, shouldn’t this be the determining factor on whether another countries product is able to be imported into this country? At the end of the day shouldn’t our general population expect that at the vary least any imported product has the same food safety and bio security requirements of any locally produced product.

  5. Brad Bellinger, 20/12/2018

    In response to the editors note on the Bert Mann post.
    During the Senate inquiry into BSE beef imports I gave evidence of beef sitting on supermarket shelves that was labeled product of USA even though we had a ban on imports from that country. Further investigation revealed that the meat was canned in the USA by a company that imported beef from Brazil. The borders of the USA are very pourus and mandated country of origin labeling has been removed .Category 1 status countries mean very little. There is no mandatory testing of BSE in carcass beef in the USA. Equivalent standards as Australian also will not stop BSE entering our food chain. Our NLIS one Billion Dollar white elephant only attempts to track cattle and does not track beef. The imports must be stopped now.

    Thanks for your comment, Brad. In response to your claim that “there is no mandatory testing of BSE in carcase beef in the USA,” we draw your attention to the USDA’s BSE Surveillance Information Centre’s website
    It says the USDA tests 40,000 samples each year – claiming this to be ten times the OIE standards. The website explains, in considerable detail, the USDA’s polices and actions over BSE surveillance testing. Editor

  6. bert mann, 20/12/2018

    Was there not spinal cord found in china or japan from beef imports in recent years?
    I know from personal experience, even beef I have bought out of large export companies here have had spinal cord in shortloins or bone in striploin before….
    I do not trust it, and I hope common sense prevails!

  7. David Connellan, 20/12/2018

    In a beef herd numbering close to 100 million, Dr Wright points out that the US has reported just four cases of BSE in the past 15 years. How many humans have died, or even been sickened as a result of the US BSE disease ‘episode’? The answer is zero. What was the consumer and market response to beef purchase in the US, after the most recent 2012 BSE detection? Again, zero. Any talk of banning US beef imports to Australia on food safety or ‘reputational’ grounds, smacks of market protection.

  8. Gary Ladbrook, 19/12/2018

    I remember going to an NLIS meeting in Miles Qld in 2005 organized by Agforce there were 400 producers at the meeting only 4 voted in favour of NLIS,Agforce President Peter Kenny said we were getting NLIS whether we liked it or not which would open doors all over the world for our meat. It didn’t a handful took it up but not the big players.There’s only 2 options with this latest episode we don’t let imports in without NLIS or we let imports in & we drop NLIS.

  9. Greg Campbell, 19/12/2018

    Australia will need to accept imported beef from an increased but still small number of countries able to meet our range of equivalence thresholds. While biosecurity, food health and our expensive and successful supportive integrity systems are a big part of the equivalence story, they are not the whole story. Australian producers and processors meet high labour and safety standards and are not free to cast the world for skilled labour at world parity prices. Australian producers and processors are required to meet high environmental and community standards and operate under strict compliance systems around animal welfare, vegetation, water and effluent management. The Australian cattle/beef industry operates with low levels of government subsidy and suffers high rates of tax and high charges for the integrity systems which underpin our exceptional beef product.
    The fact that our industry meets all these requirements, largely at its own cost, and still manages to export most of our beef production is a great credit.
    All this hard work shouldn’t be allowed to be undermined. Unless a country seeking to export beef to Australia can demonstrate equivalence on a whole scorecard of relevant comparatives, then we should have good grounds to keep the door closed.

  10. Garry Hedger, 19/12/2018

    The only way to the keep our clean status is say no to beef imports.
    Eat Australian beef it’s the best in the world and support Australian agriculture.

  11. bert mann, 19/12/2018

    It is absurd that we allow our industry to be open to such a risk. We cannot believe or trust that our government quarantine practices are up to task; white spot diseased prawns anyone????
    I hope the applicable regulatory bodies really crack down and keep an eye on, and enforce penalties to those who sell the beef without correct ‘country of origin’ labelling. It will happen, risky, cheap meat from the US will be passed off to unsuspecting customers who think they are purchasing clean australian meat. I see a lot of Japanese wagyu being promoted on facebook and certain butcher shop websites. Not once have I seen a country of origin label on any of it.
    This website even published photos of pre packed, individually cryovac Japanese wagyu steaks that the writer had purchased or was looking at purchasing, and not one had a Country of Origin sticker………
    Shame on any company that brings beef into Australia from a country known to BSE.
    If an outbreak does occur here, and our beef industry collapses overnight, then the people involved in bringing the meat in should be held accountable and be forced to pay every cent they have to an industry they contributed to ruining.

    Editor’s note: A point of clarification in relation to comments that beef imports could lead to an outbreak of BSE – unlike White Spot in prawns or FMD in cattle, BSE in cattle is not contagious. It can only be contracted if cattle eat infected Specified Risk Material (such as brains and spinal cord), which is why all countries now ensure SRM removal and destruction and have banned the feeding of meat and bone meal to cattle. Advice Beef Central has previously received from industry and government bodies is that provided the beef is derived from bovine animals born, bred, raised and slaughtered in internationally accepted Category 1 countries and have passed ante-mortem and post-mortem veterinary inspection under official veterinary supervision, it would be equivalent in safety to the beef produced in Australia, and importing from Category 1 countries with sound, approved, audited systems at least equivalent to Australia’s would not represent any additional increase in risk of finding typical BSE in this country.

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