EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Horse flu: another quarantine scandal
, September 15, 2007
Horse flu is just the latest exotic disease incursion into Australia, thanks to our lax quarantine standards.The Howard Government has announced an inquiry by a former High Court judge into the devastating equine influenza outbreak. This is inadequate. Horse flu is just the latest exotic disease incursion into Australia, as quarantine standards have come under pressure from free-traders. Nothing less than a full inquiry into the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and Biosecurity Australia over the erosion of Australian quarantine standards is needed.
The costs from the horse flu outbreak have been measured in tens of millions of dollars lost to the thoroughbred racing industry, and hundreds of millions of dollars to the entertainment and gambling industries, including companies such as Tattersall's and Tabcorp.
One particularly alarming aspect of the disease outbreak was that the virulent disease appeared to have escaped from the establishment run by AQIS, at Eastern Creek, Sydney.
The Prime Minister's inquiry into the outbreak is welcome, but does not go far enough, as this is only the most recent outbreak of imported diseases in Australia.
In 2004, the exotic disease citrus canker was discovered on a large citrus orchard in Emerald, central Queensland. The owner of that property had earlier been investigated for illegally importing plant material into Australia, but was never prosecuted.
Citrus canker spread to nearby orchards, and every citrus tree in the Emerald area had to be destroyed before the outbreak was contained. The lives of many local farmers were severely affected for years.Senate inquiry
A subsequent Senate inquiry into the citrus canker outbreak was highly critical of AQIS's efforts to deter illegal importation of plant material into Australia. It concluded, "AQIS seems to be so focussed on its important role of combating plant and animal pests that it appears oblivious to its other role under the Quarantine Act, which is to stop illegal importation of plants and animals that could potentially bring disease into Australia. If there are no deterrents to illegal importation, the country is at risk of being exposed to a number of pests that are prevalent overseas."
In June last year, the Queensland Primary Industries Minister, Tim Mulherin, revealed that at least 12 Queensland sugar-cane farms had been quarantined after the discovery of the exotic disease, sugar-cane smut, which could devastate the sugar industry.
Sugar-cane smut, a destructive disease first identified in South Africa in 1877, has spread to nearly every sugar-growing country in the world. The highly infectious fungal disease is spread by wind-borne spores which can travel long distances.
Further, the Queensland Government has had to conduct a fire-ant eradication program after the pests were first discovered in south-east Queensland in 2001.
Other concerns were raised by the Victorian farmers' newspaper, The Weekly Times
, which last year reported that "Australia's fish stocks face being devastated by exotic diseases because of lax quarantine laws" (June 21, 2006).
It said Richard Whittington, a professor at Sydney University's veterinary science school, questioned AQIS's ineffective oversight of ornamental fish coming into Australia last year - in light of the appearance of exotic diseases which have appeared in farmed Murray cod, silver perch and trout, and which may have killed large numbers of Australian frog species.
The number of imported ornamental fish coming into Australia has risen from 3.4 million in 1999 to 15.5 million last year.
AQIS confirmed that fish consignments are tested for exotic diseases only if 25 per cent or more fish died during the one-to-three week quarantine period, and if the owners were willing to pay for it.
Professor Whittington said that survivors of disease outbreaks were still being released from quarantine consignments, and there were "alarming" failures in the quarantine system.
Professor Whittington said there were "inadequate pre-border policies, inadequate duration of quarantine, and inadequate inspection and surveillance during quarantine".
Australia is under sustained international pressure to water down its quarantine laws, with threats of action against her from the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The latest instance comes from New Zealand, which is taking Australia to the WTO in an attempt to water down the conditions under which apples can enter Australia from New Zealand, where the fire-blight disease is endemic.
It is ironic that when horse flu was detected in Australia, New Zealand immediately imposed a total ban on imports of all horses from Australia.
It is also ironic that Taiwan is raising its quarantine bar so as to increase the quality of its food production - both for its domestic market and for export to Japan (see page 8) - while Australian farmers are told that their quarantine standards have to be compromised in the name of "free trade".- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.