`FRESH and frozen beef from the US and Japan are a step closer to hitting Australian shores after 14 years.
Trade was suspended in the early 2000s due to fears about mad cow disease, or BSE, but a final Department of Agriculture review has found trade can resume — if the countries meet Australia’s strict biosecurity requirements.
The review, released quietly on the department’s website last month, stresses the US, Japan and fellow applicant the Netherlands will need their operations verified “via a bacteriological testing program equivalent to that undertaken in Australia, in accordance with relevant Australian standards”.
A spokeswoman from Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s office said the decision to allow or disallow trade was not made by the minister.
“As a member of the World Trade Organisation, and as a partner in free trade agreements, we have obligations to allow trade where the science says it is safe to do so,” she said.
“Trade is a two-way street: effective trade means ensuring that we can safely import produce from the trading partners that buy our exports.”
The department reviewed the risks associated with 10 animal diseases, finding the biosecurity risk “negligible”. But Food Standards Australia New Zealand is still considering risks associated with e.coli and salmonella, which present a “medium to high risk to public health” from beef imports.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists one case of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow), found in Alabama earlier this year.
Mr Joyce’s spokeswoman said FSANZ had assessed the BSE risk for the three countries, and allowed heat-treated shelf-stable beef and beef products to be imported.
“In the past seven years there is global evidence that BSE has been controlled in all previously BSE-affected countries. Extensive surveillance has shown that the numbers of BSE-affected cattle has fallen to a negligible number of cases per year, or none,” she said.
Red Meat Advisory Council chair Don Mackay said he was confident imports would not begin unless the Government was “absolutely certain” all requirements were met.
“The Government was put on very clear notice regarding what happened with the white spot outbreak with prawns,” Mr Mackay said.
Mr Mackay said would not speculate on what the potential trade could mean for Australian beef markets, saying it would likely be some time before the US and Japan could meet Australia’s requirements.
“No doubt there’s a lot of work still to be done before a kilo of meat comes into this country,” he said.
“Certainly what they’re looking to bring here won’t be low-cost produce — they might be specialist products, but I don’t think we know what the impact might be nor what volumes.”
The Federal Government also last week tabled its responses to two Senate inquiries into beef imports and BSE, launched by the Coalition when it was in opposition — seven years after the first inquiry finished.
The 2010 inquiry — launched by Nationals senator Fiona Nash after the Rudd Labor Government moved to re-allow beef imports from countries with BSE history — called for strict risk assessment and country of origin labelling.
The 2013 inquiry — headed by former Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, a vocal opponent of recommencing US beef imports — wanted an outright ban on imports from countries with reported BSE-cases.
The Government response noted the recommendation but stressed Australia’s stringent import conditions and international trade obligations.
Asked why the responses were tabled now, a Department of Health spokeswoman said they were delayed to ensure the information in them was up to date.
“In particular, this has included further ongoing updates and changes including the country or origin labelling scheme and the commencement of the Biosecurity Act 2015,” she said.