The risks of importing raw prawns will be subject to review in response to warnings Australia is being left wide open to aquatic disease outbreaks.
- An independent advisory group has been appointed to review the federal agriculture department’s work on risk analysis for raw prawns
- Industry leaders and experts say that all imported prawns should be cooked as a precaution against white spot disease
- The Commonwealth and three importers are being sued by one prawn company that has been badly affected by white spot virus entering Australia
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud announced an independent advisory group will review his own department’s work on the revised import risk analysis for raw prawns.
Mr Littleproud said he had “enough common sense to be concerned” about what his department “has done”, after the devastating exotic white spot virus entered the country in 2016 because of biosecurity failures at Australia’s international border.
White spot disease does not harm humans but is deadly to crustaceans.
It is now confirmed to have killed small crabs and prawns in the wild in the Logan River and has been found in waters 70 kilometres away from the original outbreak.
As the virus continues to persist and now appears established in Moreton Bay, one of Australia’s largest prawn farming companies is taking importers and the Commonwealth government to the Federal Court.
Should all imported prawns be cooked?
Raw pork, poultry and beef are not allowed into Australia because of the high risk of introducing diseases that could decimate local food production industries.
In a draft review of biosecurity risks, federal government experts have not recommended cooking raw imported prawns.
This is despite recreational fishers continue to use potentially infected raw imported supermarket prawns and prawn products as bait and burley, as repeatedly shown in Queensland government surveys.
“They’re not malicious errors, they’re just human errors that have happened that I’ve got to try and eliminate.
“It’s for that reason exactly that I want this independent panel to go through their body of work and make sure that we can give industry confidence, and me confidence, that they put the right parameters in place.”
The draft revised prawn import risk analysis produced by the federal government recommended that only white spot and yellow head virus should continue to be tested for.
This was despite at least a dozen new and emerging diseases of quarantine concern to Australia being identified in prawn farms overseas since the previous failed risk analysis, which was finalised in 2009.
The federal government recently allocated another $14.5 million to understand whether containers of prawns arriving in Australia from lower risk countries, originally started their journey in countries that posed a higher risk.
‘Why not cook all imported food?’
Australian Prawn Farmers Association (APFA) executive officer Kim Hooper welcomed the news that an independent panel would review the department’s findings.
She asserted the only science-based answer to adequately protect the industry and the environment to Australia’s “appropriate level of protection” was to cook all imported prawns.
“As the minister stated, you simply cannot test every piece of product coming into the country,” Ms Hopper said.
“So why not cook all imported foreign-derived products intended for human consumption to a minimal thermal heat treatment standard?
“As we’ve been asking for over a decade and as already has been done with other imported protein commodities — to protect this iconic Australian food source?
‘Not a level playing field’
Aquatic disease expert Ben Diggles said an “extreme double standard” favoured importers over Australian prawn farmers and fishers.
“This has also terribly affected our national bait prawn industry — around 80 per cent of Australia’s bait prawns come from Moreton Bay and they all now have to be gamma irradiated to a very high level to kill the virus before they’re allowed to be released [for retail sale].
“Those biosecurity standards have been set at a high standard internally within Australia to prevent the spread of the disease, however at the international border … they’re just testing a sample of 60 prawns, out of up to a million prawns in a shipment.
“They’re trying essentially to say that’s equivalent to the local situation here domestically, which of course it isn’t, it’s not a level playing field at all.”
APFA’s Ms Hooper said you can’t, “put a dollar figure on the mental anguish our farmers have been put through”.
“The loss to our farms, the last quote I heard was over $90 million and the potential permanent loss of about 122 jobs,” she said.
Legal case launched
Gold Coast Tiger Prawns, which trades as Gold Coast Marine Aquaculture (GCMA) has launched a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the federal government and seafood companies, Aquastar, HTC and Oriental merchant.
A 94-page statement of claim blames lax biosecurity measures for more than $41 million in estimated losses to GCMA by 2030.
The exact source of the incursion has not been proven with 100 per cent certainty, but experts agree the most likely cause is the widespread use of white-spot-infected imported supermarket prawns as bait or burley by recreational fishers in Moreton Bay.
The award-winning prawn farm claims that the incursion delayed expansion plans and slowed operations.
It was the first company in Australia to start breeding prawns, rather than just relying on wild-caught stock and those valuable brood stock genetics were lost.
The outbreak first started killing prawns at a farm 5 kilometres upstream in the Logan River, which Gold Coast Tiger Prawns draws its water from.
GCMA alleges that had the government warned them about the potential for a white-spot outbreak, they could have increased their own biosecurity measures, closing the inlet from the Logan river to the farm and leaving prawn ponds empty after the 2016 harvest.
In October 2017 the Senate Committee released the findings of Operation Cattai, a government biosecurity blitz.
It found large quantities of imported infected raw prawns available for retail sale between Melbourne and Brisbane and deliberate evasion of biosecurity and quarantine controls by some seafood importers.
This including washing marinate off imported product and importing uncooked prawn meat in packages labelled as squid or octopus.
White spot has caused billions of dollars of losses to the prawn industry worldwide since it first emerged in China in 1992.
The experts appointed to review the department’s work will report back by late April.