There are fears the price of prawns is about to go “through the roof” following a decision by the Federal Government to recall all imported raw prawns.
The importation of green, or uncooked, prawns into Australia was suspended in January, but prawn farmers have expressed concern diseased prawns were still being sold.
An email from the Department of Agriculture to prawn industry stakeholders, obtained by the ABC, said all imported prawns were now being withdrawn so they could be tested for white spot disease (WSD).
“The decision to secure all uncooked prawns imported prior to the suspension was not taken lightly, and will not be in place longer than necessary,” the email said.
“It will be lifted as soon as the Department has assessed the level of biosecurity risk posed of the affected goods.”
The recall will apply to all uncooked prawns and prawn meat, including product that has been marinated.
Exempt from the ban are raw prawns that have been battered or crumbed, dried or irradiated to kill off diseases.
Prawn meat processed into dumplings, spring rolls, samosas and other dim sum-type products will also not be included in the ban.
Outbreak puts prawn farming future in doubt
At the time of January’s ban, Department testing results obtained by ABC Rural showed 70 per cent of the prawns being imported contained the exotic WSD.
The disease had already wiped out the industry on the Logan River in south-east Queensland, and although authorities are investigating how WSD got to Australia the prawn farming industry is blaming imported product from Asia.
The outbreak of WSD in Queensland is the biggest biosecurity outbreak to hit Australia’s aquaculture industry and jeopardises the future of Australia’s $80 million prawn farming sector.
Sydney-based seafood importer Harry Peters, who is also the director of the Australian Seafood Importers Association, said the price of prawns could now double.
He said the recall would mean frozen prawns were held in storage until they could be tested, but given the high rate of diseased prawns already recorded it was unlikely they would ever return to supermarket shelves.
“The impact on industry is going to be absolutely massive. This immediately turns the tap off for any raw prawn going in to the market place,” Mr Peters said.
“I wouldn’t hesitate a guess but it certainly will be over the $40 to $50 per kilogram mark [as a result of the recall].
“There will be millions of dollars worth of prawns tied up in cold storage around Australia until this is resolved, but the odds are these prawns will have to be returned or destroyed.”
Prawn prices are still relatively stable, selling for around $20 per kilogram.
ABC Rural understands all recalled product will be tested for white spot and will either be either exported, treated or destroyed if it is found to be infected.
ACCC to ‘keep very close eye’ on prices
Assistant Agriculture Minister Anne Ruston said up to 90 per cent of potentially infected prawns would be recalled for testing, but rejected claims the recall would enable retailers to hike up prices.
“Anything that tested negative to white spot or any other disease is free to go back on the shelves,” she said.
“When you consider the value of Australia’s seafood sector, it wouldn’t matter what the cost was, we need to protect our industries.”
Senator Ruston said the Government had asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to ensure retailers did not jack up prices in response to the recall.
“We have asked the ACCC Commissioner to keep a very close eye on what is happening in the market place,” she said.
“Anyone who is caught artificially increasing the price to take advantage of an unfortunate situation will have the full weight of our regulations and penalties come down on them.”
However, the Federal Opposition’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said claims that prices would not rise were incorrect, and the Government was responsible for letting that happen.
“It is likely the price of prawns will go through the roof. We have had a number of major farms taken out of the domestic supply system and there is a suspension on imports,” he said.
“Supply will be very short, and on any simple demand and supply situation I suspect prices will rise and they will rise substantially.”
Too early to blame imports
The recall now applies to all prawns imported before the Department introduced tougher border testing for white spot and prior to when the ban came into effect on January 9.
“These consignments are being subjected to an enhanced inspection and double testing regime at the border to ensure any product entering the country is free from white spot disease,” the Department of Agriculture email said.
However, Mr Peters said that just because diseased prawns were found on sale in Australia it did not mean they caused the outbreak in the Logan River.
“There is no proof imported prawns caused the disease outbreak and I ask the question: ‘why has it not been evident in other fishing areas?'” he said.
“I would also like to ask the Federal Government where are the results for white spot testing in the northern Australia area, from Broome around to Brisbane.
“Why has it not been found in any other spot around Australia?”
ABC Rural has asked the Department of Agriculture on a number of occasions in which states, other than Queensland, it had found white spot on prawns, but no response has been received.
Mr Peters said he was also yet to see proof of WSD being transmitted.
“I challenge the Federal Government to show us proof the disease can be transmitted from a frozen product to a live prawn or animal,” he said.
“I understand it has been done in laboratory situations, but not in the wild.”
But despite claiming that it is too early to blame imported product, Mr Peters said the Government’s decision to recall all imported prawns for testing was appropriate.
“I don’t think it a knee-jerk reaction. It is the only scientific way the government can get to a final decision,” he said.
Import ban exemptions
The Department of Agriculture email also said importers could apply for exemptions to the import ban, provided they could prove the prawns they were importing were not a biosecurity risk.
“There is no set format or specific requirements for the submissions,” the email said.
“However, the submission should outline the proposal and provide clear reasoning for how the pathway manages the risks associated with import.
“The Department will conduct a risk assessment of the proposal and using the outcomes of that risk assessment, the director of biosecurity will make a decision about whether the product can be exempt from the temporary suspension.”