The repeated quarantine failures of Biosecurity Australia (BA) and the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) constitute a major threat to Australia’s agricultural industries, writes Patrick J. Byrne.
The decision of Biosecurity Australia to allow imports of New Zealand apples and avocados and Philippines bananas makes it essential that federal parliament take responsibility for final quarantine decisions. Elected representatives should not be allowed to duck responsibility on such important issues.
There has been a litany of quarantine failures by Biosecurity Australia (BA) and the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS).
Fire blight, which stunts apple trees and affects fruit productivity, is endemic in NZ and has never been eliminated from any country where it has become established. Australia’s apple industry will be seriously threatened by NZ imports.
NSW Farmers Association (NSWFA) horticulture committee chair, Peter Darley, said that plans to check only 600 apples in each consignment were not enough to prevent the introduction of pests and disease.
Mr Darley told the Central Western Daily that he did not believe the quarantine agencies had a risk plan: “They do not have quality assurance and I believe they are incompetent in preventing an outbreak in Australia.”
He said the Bureau of Rural Science regarded imported NZ apples as posing a high risk of introducing fire blight. BA dismissed this claim with the comment: “This is not peer-reviewed, scientific literature.”
Head of Australia’s apple fire-blight committee, John Corboy, desribed the BA appeals process as “a farce”, and of the import risk-assessment process he added, “We need some independence.”
The latest BA ruling on NZ apples also risks introducing the sap-sucking “wheat bug”. It attacks wheat crops and was unique to NZ, until it recently became established in Belgium and the Netherlands, possibly transmitted on NZ apples. It has also been discovered on tomatoes imported from NZ into Australia.
In 2005, a Senate inquiry roundly attacked BA’s recommendations on NZ apple imports. It condemned the proposed inspection regime and accused the body of allowing trade considerations to affect quarantine rulings.
Tasmania is likely to ban NZ apples. It produces two-thirds of Australia’s apple exports, marketed on the basis of its fire-blight-free status. Western Australia has been exempted under the BA recommendation because no satisfactory protocol could be established against black spot, which is found in other states but not WA.
BA’s decision to allow imported Philippines bananas was attacked by Mark Panitz from Queensland’s peak horticultural body, Growcom. He said the BA report admitted that banana pests posed a level of risk exceeding Australia’s Appropriate Level of Protection (ALOP) for moko, black sigatoka, freckle, armoured scales, mealybugs, spider mites, and banana rust thrips, endemic in the Philippines.
He said the report effectively recommended self-regulation by the Philippines, and asked Australian growers to put their “faith in an overseas agency … However, on the same page, Biosecurity Australia readily admits that critical failures might occur in these systems and immediate actions would be required to address these failures to meet Australia’s requirements.”
“This seems like a recipe for disaster”, Mr Panitz concluded.
Avocados Australia has criticised BA’s decision to lift the ban it placed last year on NZ avocados, resulting from an outbreak of avocado scab. It questioned the NZ ministry of agriculture claim that the country was now free of the disease.
BA has been strongly attacked for other decisions on beef, pork, salmon and grapes, and AQIS for its handling of a citrus canker outbreak.
In 2006, another Senate report dealt with the citrus canker outbreak in Central Queensland. The report said it “beggars belief” that AQIS had not used its search powers to fully investigate allegations that contaminated plant materials had been illegally imported into the country.
AQIS seemed “oblivious” to its duty, under the Quarantine Act, “to stop the illegal importation of plants and animals that could potentially bring disease into Australia”.
BA has also allowed fresh pork imports from countries where post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) has devastated young pig populations. Every country that has allowed pork imports from countries with PMWS has seen the disease become established in its domestic pig population.
Thin edge of the wedge
John Corboy has warned that the recent apple import decision is “the thin edge of the wedge” on quarantine. When the possibility of beef imports was raised a couple of years ago, then Nationals’ leader John Anderson proclaimed that beef from foot-and-mouth disease-
infected countries would never enter Australia.
Yet at the time of his statement, a foreign-owned processor was given permission to import beef from Brazil. BA believed the beef was coming from a region free of foot-and-mouth disease, on the word of a French-based authority in that area of Brazil. However, SBS television investigated and found the disease was endemic in the region. The beef was dumped on the Wagga-Wagga tip before being found and burned.
The repeated quarantine failures of BA and AQIS constitute a major threat to Australia’s agricultural industries. It’s time that parliamentary representatives took responsibility for final quarantine decisions.
– Patrick J. Byrne.