Senators investigating beef import rules remain divided over the question of whether beef from countries where BSE has previously been reported should be allowed into Australia.
After conducting an inquiry into beef import protocols over the past five months, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee handed down its first report last Friday.
A majority of senators on the committee supported the main recommendation that under no circumstances should Australia allow beef to be imported from countries where BSE has previously been identified, or countries that trade with adjoining countries where BSE has previously been identified.
The committee also passed a recommendation that the Australian Government work with the World Organisation for Animal Health to develop a live test for BSE.
“The principal reasons for that conclusion are that the beef production chain is susceptible to corruption, as may be seen from the experience of the recent meat substitution situation in the EU, and because, despite the best efforts of the Australian authorities, traceability of cattle cannot be guaranteed,” committee chair and Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan said.
“Additionally, there is no live test for BSE, nor is there a prospect of a test being developed in the near future, which would require research on various forms of diagnostic tissue.
“Allied to this is the fact that the symptoms of vCJD may not be become apparent for decades, so that any beef imports contaminated with BSE might not be identified for many years.”
However, despite the majority support, Government senators submitted a dissenting report highlighting their opposition to calls to block imports from countries where BSE has previously been identified.
Labor Senator and deputy chair of the RRAT committee Glenn Serle said Australia’s existing policies, which were consistent with its World Trade Organisation obligations, did not allow beef products to be imported unless the risks associated with BSE were adequately managed.
“Prohibiting beef imports from any country that has ever reported a case of BSE, regardless of its current official disease status and risk management measures, would be inconsistent with these obligations,” Senator Serle said.
“Such a requirement could significantly damage our credibility as a country that conducts science-based risk assessments and applies the least trade restrictive risk-management measures necessary.”
The inquiry looked into several issues including “the possible imminent importation of beef products from countries that have BSE and/or FMD, the processes by Government agencies in determining risk and the adequacy of Australia’s food labelling legislation.
After considering the evidence received from 14 submissions and a public hearing held in Canberra in May, the committee handed down its report last Friday.
The committee also passed a recommendation calling on the relevant minister to report any future decision to approve or reject applications by exporting countries to export beef to Australia to Parliament and the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport committee.
Government senators also opposed this finding, on the grounds that Australia already has a robust decision making framework in place which delegated decision making to officials, in some cases with the guidance of eminent and independent scientists.
“It would be inappropriate for information on Government to Government processes to be communicated to individuals not directly involved in the process before the decision making process is completed,” Senator Serle wrote.
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