Australia has announced it is to reopen its borders to beef imports from countries that have previously reported incidents of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
A Government statement said the rule change would come into force from March, 2010, following a risk assessment that found risk to human health from imported beef was extremely low. Australia implemented a blanket ban on beef imports from BSE-affected countries in 2001.
But opposition leaders warned the move could devastate vital export markets to South East Asia if any imported product that tested postitive for BSE led to a blanket ban on all Australian beef. They also said the domestic meat processing sector was likely to be undercut by imports exempt from carbon taxes.
“We have no intention of compromising our food standards,” said a statement from Tony Burke, Minister for Agriculture.
He added: “The new arrangements will not affect the Australian food standard which requires that beef and beef products be derived from animals free of BSE. This standard will not change and current enforcement measures will continue to apply.”
The Government sought to play down fears over the move, saying the rule change would not affect Australia’s export trade and that its World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) favourable ‘neglible risk’ category would be retained.
Burke added: “The strongly competitive position in domestic and export markets for beef, it is not anticipated that the new rules will lead to any significant increased level of beef imports into Australia.”
The decision reinforced Australia’s science-based risk-management approach to these issues and was supported by a host of industry groups including the Australian Meat Industry Council, which have “indicated their support for updating the BSE policy”, said the Minister.
Under the new system, countries wishing to export into Australia would have to demonstrate robust BSE-prevention systems were in place. Any that failed to do this would be excluded by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
But the move has been attacked by opposition leaders who claimed it poses a major threat to domestic meat processors and could devastate vital export markets in South East Asia.
Shadow Minister for Agriculture John Cobb declared he was extremely concerned about the “havoc which could be wreaked” on exports to the Japanese and South Korean - Australia’s largest and third largest markets - if BSE was ever found in the country. Some 38 per cent of Australian beef exports, worth A$2.06bn, were shipped to Japan in 2008, he said. Cobb cautioned that US exports to Japan and Korea had collapsed in the wake of BSE being discovered in the United States in 2003 and 2005.
The Shadow spokesman also said that domestic producers would be unfairly disadvantaged as imported beef imports would not be subject to a carbon emissions tax.
An increase in the volume of beef entering Australia combined with the A$37m budget cuts and job losses in the food biosecurity agency AQIS would increase the risk of BSE returning to the country, he said.