In an unprecedented move, Australian Pork Ltd (APL) is planning to go to the Federal Court to challenge Biosecurity Australia’s report recommending that pork imports be allowed from an increasing range of countries. A decision in favour of the pork industry has the potential to sink the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. The move is likely to be followed by other industries that are also challenging Biosecurity Australia (BA) import rulings.
Less than two weeks after Prime Minister Howard and US President Bush announced their intention to seek their respective governments’ support for a free trade agreement, three Biosecurity Australia reports were released allowing imports of Philippines bananas, New Zealand apples and pork from various countries.
These reports reversed earlier recommendations to bar imports of these products for quarantine reasons. Scientists and producer groups are concerned that BA is now pursuing a “least-trade restrictive” approach to imports, rather than maintaining a high quarantine bar. This has the potential to undermine Australia’s scientific-based quarantine procedures.
While government officials are insisting that Australian quarantine standards will not be compromised by the proposed free trade agreement with the US, pork and banana producers are concerned that America has sought back door changes to Australia’s quarantine standards outside the written draft agreement.
Indeed, the Office of the United States Trade Representative Trade Facts briefing paper on the proposed agreement describes new opportunities for US farm exporters saying, “Food inspection procedures that have posed barriers in the past will be addressed, benefiting sectors such as pork, citrus, apples and stone fruit.”
On May 13, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee slammed the BA report on pork, recommending that the new quarantine regime for imported pig meat be withdrawn “on the basis of inadequate methodology, as well as inadequate risk assessment and risk management strategies” and that BA invoke “the precautionary principle” in relation to Post-Weaning Multisystemic Wasting Syndrome (PMWS) and ban imports from countries where the disease is present.
Australian Pork Limited (APL) Chairman Dr Paul Higgins said, “It is clear that the committee has accepted the evidence presented by CSIRO and shares APL’s view that a 95-99 per cent likelihood of an exotic disease outbreak [of PMWS] within the next 10 years under the proposed quarantine regime is too high.
“Since it was first diagnosed in 1996, PMWS has spread like wild fire throughout the world. So far, we have been lucky that our isolation and relatively low import volumes have kept the Australian pig herd PMWS-free.
“APL has been warning the Australian Government about the dangers of PMWS for several years. By not sufficiently tightening the import protocols for pork in the light of worldwide problems with PMWS, it is clear our concerns have been falling on deaf ears.
“Our only hope of keeping PMWS out of Australia and maintaining our clean, green image is to pursue an action in the courts,” Dr Higgins said.
BA’s credibility is also in serious question over it’s banana import recommendations. Biosecurity Australia officials repeatedly claimed before the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee in March that all seven members of its import risk assessment panel had agreed with the report’s findings.
The report recommended that banana imports would be safe if the anticipated 79 million clusters of Philippines banana imports were washed by hand to remove mealy bugs, and if imports were restricted to non-banana-growing states.
But it has been revealed that at least four of the seven members of the panel refused to sign off on the BA report. The NSW and Queensland state Ministers for Agriculture have revealed that their three representatives did not support the report, and a fourth disagreed to such an extent that he presented a minority report to the panel chairman in July 2003.
Mr Bob Paton, a NSW Agriculture Department entomologist on the import risk assessment panel, recently told the Senate inquiry that washing large quantities of bananas by hand “is really not practicable” and that the lack of border roadblocks between Queensland, NSW and Victoria meant there was no practical way to stop the movement of imported bananas into banana-growing states.
Apple and pear growers have also slammed the scientific reasoning for the Biosecurity Australia recommendations, saying the science doesn’t stack up and won’t provide adequate protection from fire blight and other pests and diseases.
Fire blight is endemic in New Zealand and 40 other countries, but is not present in Australia. Once it is introduced, it can never be eradicated.
According to Jon Durham, Managing Director of Apple and Pear Australia Limited, Japan is one of the few nations which is free of fire blight. “It does accept apples from countries where fire blight is present – but it’s fighting hard to maintain much tougher quarantine restrictions than Biosecurity Australia is proposing.”
- Pat Byrne