Australia’s Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is challenging his own department’s biosecurity standards for imported prawns, admitting he isn’t ‘comfortable’ that the nation is being effectively protected from new aquatic disease outbreaks.
- Federal Agriculture minister David Littleproud has challenged his department over its biosecurity standards for imported prawns
- The minister has asked the department for proof its measures are effective in keeping aquatic diseases out
- Scientists, wild fishers and prawn farmers want all imported prawns to be cooked to kill viruses
As the ABC revealed earlier this week, the Federal Agriculture Department’s draft review of risk assessments of imported raw prawns — and breaded, battered and crumbed green prawns — does not recommend any significant biosecurity changes and required testing for just two diseases, White spot and Yellow head virus.
Pressure has been mounting from scientists, aquaculture farmers and wild catch seafood and bait fishers for the legislation to be changed to force all imported prawns to be cooked.
They warned that raw imported supermarket prawns and prawn products were being used as recreational fishing bait and burley, without being tested for a host of emerging diseases plaguing prawn farms overseas.
Now Mr Littleproud has asked his department to prove they have got the science right.
“I think there should be an explanation as to why imported prawns are able to have different standards to those that are produced here in Australia.”
Unlike importers, Australian prawn farmers, wild bait and seafood fishers have to cook crustaceans before they can sell them outside a White spot movement control zone stretching from Caloundra in South-East Queensland to the New South Wales border.
Minister urged to act quickly
Aquatic animal disease expert, Dr Ben Diggles said Mr Littleproud needed to “get his head around this problem very quickly and I think his department is making a huge mistake here”.
“This charade, that testing is adequate to provide the appropriate level of protection, just needs to stop. I mean, it’s nonsense.
“The level of protection that’s required to stop these diseases is cooking of all prawns.”
Harmless to humans but deadly to crustaceans, a 2016 white spot outbreak devastated South East Queensland prawn farms.
The pathogen pathway has never been proven, but the virus is believed to have entered Australia through infected imported supermarket prawns that were most likely used as bait.
Dr Diggles revealed to the ABC that white spot had now killed wild prawns and small crabs in the Logan River and had spread into several levels of the lower food chain in Moreton Bay.
He said Mr Littleproud was ‘right to challenge his department’ over assurances that ‘100 per cent’ of imported prawns were being tested.
“I don’t think the minister is actually aware of what that actually means because, in reality, that testing regime is only a sample of 60 prawns being taken from each shipment and some of these shipments are huge,” the scientist said.
“It’s not unusual for a 40-foot (12-metre) container of prawns to come in, and that’s equivalent to a million imported prawns.
Dr Diggles said the testing was not providing the protection Australia needs or what future generations of Australians deserve.
“This testing regime Mr Littleproud’s department is trying to pass off doesn’t even pass the pub test, let alone scientific scrutiny.”
Of 718 tests finalised on imported prawn consignments last year, four tested positive for white spot syndrome virus and were re-exported.
Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries scientists insist that cooking prawns is the only way to stop spreading emerging diseases.
Their submission to the Federal prawn import review revealed that of 1,000 recreational fishers surveyed in 2017, 23 per cent were using cheap imported supermarket prawns and crumbed and marinated prawns as bait.
And despite multiple public campaigns warning of the dangers, a second survey a year later showed that 19 per cent were still dropping a line loaded with supermarket prawns.
“These imported prawns are cheaper to buy, so it’s a convenience thing. It’s not something we think is going to be able to be changed,” Dr Diggles said.
Gold Coast Tiger Prawns general manager, Alistair Dick said that any risk of diseased imported raw green prawns being used as bait was too high.
“It would be unacceptable to the chicken or pork industry for this sort of thing to go on.
“If there was mince sitting on a supermarket shelf and it said that it was to be used as sausage mince and it tested positive for foot and mouth, I wonder what the department would think about that because that’s a clear analogy to what we’re dealing with. They’re saying, well these prawns are only to be used as food, but that’s unrealistic.”
David Littleproud said that trading rules needed to be balanced with assurances for the industry.
“But what we’ve got to do is protect our industries. And that’s what I think we need to challenge the department on and the science on to make sure they’ve got that right and I’m not comfortable in my mind, just at the moment.”
The Federal department of Agriculture was again approached for comment.
In a previous statement, a spokesperson said that Australia ‘has an international obligation to apply the least trade-restrictive biosecurity measures to achieve Australia’s appropriate level of protection’.