COVER STORY: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Has Canberra gone bananas? Has Biosecurity Australia dropped its quarantine standards?
, March 13, 2004
Less than two weeks after both the Queensland election and the announcement of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US, the Federal Agriculture Department released three Biosecurity Australia reports recommending imports of New Zealand apples, Philippines bananas and foreign pork.
The immediate question raised by agricultural groups is whether Biosecurity Australia and/or the Federal Government were pursuing measures to lower the quarantine bar on food imports.
A week before the Biosecurity Australia (BA) announcements, Australian Pork Limited (APL) wrote to Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, to clarify discrepancies between the Minister's assurances on quarantine, and claims from US authorities that Australia was making quarantine concessions.
APL Chairman, Dr Paul Higgins, said in his letter to Mr Vaile, "In identifying key agricultural products that will benefit from immediate tariff elimination, the Office of the US Trade Representative includes pork products following the 'resolution of technical issues'.
"It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the fact that Australia already has a zero tariff levels on many pork products and that according to Mr Vaile's written advice, Australia's quarantine regime is not affected.
"Equally confusing is the statement of Jon Caspers, President of the US National Pork Producers Council that 'The support of US pork producers for the Australian free trade agreement is contingent upon Australia completing its technical work [referring to the draft BA Import Risk Analysis for pig meat] and opening its market to US pork.'
"The clear inference of these statements ... is that US support for the FTA, insofar as it relates to the pork industry, is contingent upon the resolution of 'technical' matters pertaining to Australia's quarantine protocols for imported pig meat.
"... What is the real situation?" APL is awaiting a reply.
A CSIRO study estimates the new quarantine standards, announced by Biosecurity Australia (BA), will expose the Australian pig herd to a 95 per cent chance of an exotic disease outbreak within 10 years.
BA did not dispute the CSIRO's conclusions as to the likelihood of an exotic disease outbreak under the new standards at the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee's public hearing into the draft Import Risk Analysis in mid-February.
Post weaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome, discovered less than 10 years ago, is devastating pig herds worldwide. It has killed eight million pigs and cost an estimated $A1.5 billion in the European Union alone.
BA's proposed protocols for the import of pork are inadequate, because scientists have not even confirmed the causes of the this devastating disease.
The BA report on NZ apples comes three years after an earlier report was shelved because of concerns over its risk assessment procedure, underscored by a highly critical Senate report.
John Corboy, head of the apple industry Fire Blight Taskforce, explained that the three protocols for importing NZ apples are seriously inadequate. Visual inspection of NZ orchards is grossly insufficient for detecting the presence of the fire blight bacteria. Dipping apples in chlorine water will not kill the bacteria in the apple's calyx, where the disease is concentrated and where air bubbles form in water. Cold storing apples for six weeks won't eliminate fire blight, which has been found in apples cold stored for six months.
Australia's banana industry is astounded at BA's back-flip to permit the entry of Philippines bananas, which carry a range of exotic diseases and pests. As News Weekly
(November 15, 2003) explained, bananas have little genetic diversity, making it very difficult to breed new varities resistant to a range of diseases and pests affecting crops worldwide. (See BANANA QUARANTINE: Will we kill off our golden goose?
Incredibly, one of the most deadly diseases, Black Sigatoka, was left out of the import risk calculations. According to Tony Heidrich of the Australian Banana Growers Council, "the conclusions of this report by Australia's frontline quarantine agency are baffling, so glaring are the scientific inadequacies".
Incredibly, all three BA reports have reversed their previous decisions to ban imports, without any new science to demonstrate a reduction in the risk from imports.
Underscoring the concerns of rural industries is the recent revelation by The Australian
's Christine Wallace, on a leak from inside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
Wallace claims that the Australian negotiating team from DFAT recommended against the deal, but were overridden by senior officials from the foreign policy section (not the trade side) of DFAT.
Allegedly, Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, refused to recommend the deal. Instead, John Howard made the decision, even though President Bush had refused Mr Howard's appeal to permit a miniscule 30,000 tonnes of beef, and any amount of sugar, into the US.