NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
EI inquiry hears of more quarantine failures
, February 16, 2008
After last year's equine influenza outbreak, Australians are entitled to ask whether our quarantine system in relation to import of plants and other animals (including aquarium fish) has experienced similar failures.Further evidence of the inadequacies of Australia's quarantine regime which led to the outbreak of horse flu last August has been given to the commission of inquiry into the outbreak of equine influenza (EI) in Sydney.
The commission is headed by a former justice of the High Court of Australia, Commissioner Ian Callinan.
For the past four months the commission has heard evidence from staff of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), as well as from employees of the companies importing overseas stallions which are believed to have brought the disease into Australia, grooms who accompanied stallions into Australia, truck-drivers and their supervisors with the transport companies, airport employees and others directly involved with horse importation.
The picture which emerges is one of incompetence, negligence and complacency by those responsible for protecting Australia from imported diseases.
For example, the chief groomsman who accompanied imported stallions from the Sydney airport to Eastern Creek Quarantine Station just before the outbreak, Hirose Tetsuhito, admitted signing forms at Eastern Creek saying he would abide by quarantine rules, but said he had not read them, and had not completed the check boxes on the form.
He said, "I have signed the document, because this signature is mine, but I do not remember reading this document."
While he conceded he had responsibility for vets and farriers coming to Eastern Creek, he thought this referred to animal health, not quarantine.
When his attention was drawn to the AQIS protocol which said that "approval to visit is granted under the following conditions … All visitors must wear protective clothing and footwear and undertake a three-minute head-to-toe shower prior to leaving Eastern Creek…", he commented, "As I said, I cannot recall reading the document or receiving this document."
Imported livestock are carried from the airport directly to Eastern Creek by truck. One of the major carriers is Livestock Transport Group (LTG), the largest carrier of horses in Eastern Australia.
LTG's Sydney operations manager is Nick Eastlake, who gave evidence to the inquiry on January 24.
Under cross-examination, it emerged that LTG declarations by drivers of vehicles carrying imported horses that they travel directly from the airport to Eastern Creek Quarantine Station were prepared before
the arrival of the horses at the airport, and not verified by either the company or their drivers (who were unaware of the existence of the declarations).
The commission found that one of the drivers who was named in a declaration as having carried a consignment of horses from the airport to Eastern Creek at the time, John Ryan, did not in fact do so.
It further emerged that trucks carrying imported horses were not completely disinfected.
Mr Eastlake had never given his drivers instructions in cleaning out compartments on the trucks which carry livestock equipment brought into Australia and which are not subject to quarantine controls at the airport.
Nor did he or AQIS instruct them on cleaning the strapper's cabin, which is separate from the driver's cabin and located near the livestock. The possibility of disease transmission is obvious.
Nor was disinfectant used in the driver's cabin, although drivers and grooms, who both have contact with imported horses, travel there. His drivers confirmed these comments.
Mr Eastlake said he believed quarantine conditions on imports to New Zealand were much stricter than in Australia, based on his own experience in travelling to New Zealand.
He said that New Zealand quarantine, apart from seizing equipment which had contact with livestock, had veterinarians to examine all horses and were much more rigorous in examining personal property.
"They pulled the bag apart and looked at everything. I thought that was overboard at the time, but in light of what has happened in Australia you can see why and understand why they do it."
His observation was that AQIS veterinarians gave only a perfunctory examination of imported horses. Examination of imported horses lasted about one minute.No examination
Asked whether there was any physical examination of horses at the airport, Mr Eastlake said "No." Asked whether the vets looked in the horses' nostrils or eyes, where discharges are a sign of equine influenza, he again said, "No."
AQIS advised that since the outbreak of EI, an officer had been appointed to Eastern Creek quarantine station to ensure that people were properly trained in EI and other disease-management protocols.
Australians are entitled to ask whether Australia's quarantine system in relation to imports of plants and other animals (including aquarium fish) experiences the same failures. If so, it is only a matter of time before more exotic plant and animal diseases devastate Australian primary industries.- Peter Westmore