QUARANTINE BREACH: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Exotic disease outbreak threatens Qld citrus industry
, July 17, 2004
The discovery of citrus canker on a Queensland citrus farm highlights the risk which Australia is taking through the reduction of quarantine standards.
As a result of the discovery, a property at Emerald, in central Queensland, has been quarantined, and Queensland citrus fruits banned immediately, causing large financial losses to Queensland citrus-growers.
The cause of the spread of the disease was still the subject of speculation, as News Weekly
went to press. However, the ABC reported Federal Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, as saying that "a quarantine breach could have allowed the citrus canker disease to enter Queensland".
There are reports in the industry that quarantine authorities entered a confidentiality agreement with a farmer alleged to have illegally imported citrus bud stock. The outbreak is believed to have been on this farm.
At the time, a confidentiality agreement prevented details of the outbreak being disclosed to the citrus industry.
Quarantine in Australia is administered by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). Evaluation of risk in imported foodstuffs is provided by an arm of AQIS, Biosecurity Australia.
In recent years, Biosecurity Australia has moved from a policy of prohibiting imports from countries where plant diseases are prevalent, to a policy of "manageable risk", which permits imports, subject to established quarantine procedures.
This is a direct result of the Federal Government's free trade agenda.
Under this new policy, BA has recommended imports of pork, bananas, apples and grapes from countries where serious diseases are present, despite fierce opposition from the industries affected, and admissions that imports could lead to the spread of disease.
Australia's Chief Plant Protection Officer, Graeme Hamilton, said that if the outbreak is not controlled, it could devastate the industry.
Citrus canker is a bacterial disease of citrus that causes premature leaf and fruit drop.
Citrus canker is highly contagious and can be spread rapidly by wind-borne rain, farm equipment, animals and birds, people carrying the infection on hands or clothing, or moving infected plants.
Australia imports large quantities of fresh citrus fruit from the United States. Citrus canker is common in Florida. The US Government pays owners of citrus groves to replace commercial citrus trees affected by the disease.
Interestingly, Biosecurity Australia last year conducted an Import Risk Assessment of importing citrus fruit from Florida, which confirmed that the risk of spread of the disease in Australia was high, but nevertheless proposed to permit Florida citrus fruit to enter Australia.
The latest scandal follows mounting criticism of Australia's quarantine policy, not just by affected industries, but increasingly by parliamentarians.
A Senate inquiry recently uncovered systematic cover-ups by Biosecurity Australia of errors in its Import Risk Assessment related to importation of apples from New Zealand, where the fire blight disease is endemic.
In its report, Biosecurity said that New Zealand apples could come in from orchards free from fire blight symptoms after being sprayed with chlorine and cool stored for six weeks.
Senators from all parties criticised a variety of errors in the report, and demanded that Biosecurity Australia explain why it had not publicly stated that its report was flawed.
The head of Biosecurity Australia admitted that errors had been made, and that their presence had been covered up, but claimed that they made no difference to the body's final conclusions.
Following the revelations, a number of rural industries have proposed that AQIS decisions on apples, bananas and pork should be withdrawn, and a halt made to all Import Risk Assessments currently being conducted.
They are also demanding a full and open inquiry into Biosecurity Australia, and the development of a revised model for assessing applications for imports, in consultation with affected industries.
In relation to affected industries, there should be compensation for industries having to spend large amounts of money assessing Biosecurity Australia's Import Risk Assessments that contain errors.
In light of the damage which the Queensland citrus industry has already suffered as a result of the discovery of this exotic disease, the Federal Government should also indemnify this industry for all losses incurred, directly or indirectly, from the spread of the citrus canker disease.
The same should apply to other affected industries which face destruction as a result of the reckless actions of government bureaucrats.