The federal government recently announced an extra $137.8 million for further, new biosecurity investment over five years.
Good news, for sure, but is it too little too late?
The edge was certainly taken off the announcement by allegations aired by ABC Four Corners on Monday. This revealed a highly destructive virus has again been detected in supermarket prawns, despite tightened import restrictions introduced after a disease outbreak decimated south-east Queensland’s prawn farming industry in 2016.
The original incursion came as no surprise to those involved in the industry. Inadequate import requirements and haphazard defences at the border had long been a sore point.
While consignments were meant to be subject to virus testing in order to pass quarantine inspection, it was clear there were holes in the regime. Marinated or battered raw prawns weren’t required to be tested. Inspectors were overworked and ill-prepared – they didn’t even have warm clothing to operate in a minus 30-degree freezers peeling open prawn cartons. Importers were permitted to unload their containers unsupervised, which gave them ample time in which to fiddle with the stock before an inspector showed up.
A 2009 expert risk assessment found that, without proper safeguards, there was a high likelihood that diseases carried by imported raw prawns could spread to Australian prawn populations.
Then the inevitable happened.
In November 2016, white spot disease was detected in farmed prawns in south-east Queensland farms. Investigators believe it was most likely the disease was introduced into local rivers through infected imported bait from a local supermarket, where prawns are cheaper than in tackle shops.
Subsequent tests found more than 85 per cent of imported samples from retail outlets also tested positive for the disease.
Prawns worth tens of millions of dollars, which were being raised in ponds at five infected farms, were destroyed when the outbreak was confirmed.
Barnaby Joyce, the then agriculture minister, announced the indefinite suspension of green prawn imports into Australia. “Australia’s $358 million prawn industry must be protected and not put at risk by the careless and selfish acts of a few,” he said.
A ban was also imposed on imported uncooked prawns being used for bait, and samples from all consignments of imported green prawns were required to be sent for testing to ensure they were free from white spot.
In a damning review at the time, the Inspector-General of Biosecurity found the devastating outbreak of white spot represented “a major failure of Australia’s biosecurity system”.
“The department demonstrated a remarkable level of naivety about the potential for importers to willfully circumvent import conditions for any class of prawns that required viral testing,” the report said.
By the end of the year, the government had initiated action against nine seafood companies responsible for 70 per cent of all raw prawns imported into Australia in 2016. Only one has so far been charged, with the case against it not listed to be heard until 2019.
The ban was lifted in mid-2017, though import conditions were tightened.
But it was not enough.
In April this year, inspectors once again identified the virus in the wild in Queensland. In May, twelve consignments of imported prawns inspected under the new “enhanced” regime tested positive for the disease. Then testing conducted for the Four Corners report found traces of the virus present in 30 per cent of prawn samples purchased from a number of Queensland retail outlets.
However, almost two years after the original outbreak, white spot testing on marinaded, battered, or crumbed raw prawns is not scheduled to begin until September this year.
In the face of rapidly increasing international trade, scientists, industry executives, and former government officials have repeatedly said that Australia’s biosecurity defences are simply inadequate.
These revelations raise serious questions about Australia’s preparedness to combat a range of exotic diseases and pests that have the potential to wreak carnage on the economy.
As an island nation, we have earned an international reputation for high quality, safe produce. This is our key point of difference from our competitors who are plagued with poor regulations and major pests and diseases. If we are to maximise the benefits presented by emerging Asian markets, we need to maintain that safe, clean and green image.
As an island off a bigger island, Tasmania relies heavily on this reputation, and so we have even more at risk.
Any failure of our biosecurity defences potentially poses an enormous threat to our national security – and that means investment in these systems must prioritised by all governments.