Former Minister for Trade
Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Joint Media Release with Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Tony Burke, Minister for Health Nicola Roxon and Parliamentary secretary for Health Mark Butler

20 October, 2009

Australia refines its food safety rules for imported beef and beef products

Australia is adjusting its imported food policy settings regarding bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) for beef and beef products. The changes follow a review of current settings and will come into effect from 1 March, 2010.

An update of the science of BSE and consideration of the risks associated with importing the beef and beef products was undertaken by Professor John Mathews. Professor Mathews’ report concludes that the risk to human health from imported beef remains extremely low, provided the appropriate risk mitigation strategies are put in place.

We have no intention of compromising our food standards. 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.

In reaching this decision, the Government consulted with a wide range of interested health stakeholders and no concerns were raised.

When BSE was reported in a number of European countries in 2001, Australia implemented blanket measures to protect the public. At that time, we amended our policy to prohibit imports of beef products immediately from any country that had reported any case of BSE.

Since then, there have been significant advances in knowledge and changes in practice in managing beef herds and food production. This has allowed countries to trade beef and beef products safely.

The independent review of the scientific evidence, mentioned above, indicates that it is possible to import beef from countries that have reported cases of BSE and maintain a high level of protection for the Australian public, provided the appropriate risk management mechanisms are put in place.

Professor John Mathews is an eminent scientist with 40 years’ experience as an epidemiological researcher. His review was peer reviewed and supported by expert scientists under the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies Advisory Committee. Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jim Bishop, was also consulted. A copy of the independent review can be downloaded at www.health.gov.au.

Until now, under our World Trade Organization obligations, if there were a case of BSE in any part of Australia the current policy would require all Australian beef to be removed from the shelves. The new policy provides a better outcome for both our domestic and export industry allowing a more sensible risk-based regional response to be made.

The change will not affect Australia’s animal health status which is recognised by the World Organisation for Animal Health as being in the most favourable category of “negligible risk”. It will not diminish our ability to export beef to the world.

The decision reinforces Australia’s strong science-based risk-management approach to human, animal and plant health policy, and supports our position in international standard setting organisations. Such an approach is supported by Australia’s peak national beef organisations including the Red Meat Advisory Council, which includes the Australian Meat Industry Council, Cattle Council of Australia and the Australian Lot Feeders’ Association, who have also indicated their support for updating the BSE policy.

A number of countries have requested access to Australia’s beef market. These countries will be required to undergo a rigorous risk assessment led by Food Standards Australia New Zealand to ensure they have robust systems in place to prevent the BSE agent from entering the human food chain.

Countries looking to export their beef to Australia must meet rigorous requirements to ensure that beef products entering Australia are BSE free and we will not compromise on this.

The new import conditions will require exporting countries to prove they have acceptable controls in place, even if a particular country has not reported BSE, and demonstrate that those controls are implemented and monitored.

These requirements relate to a wide range of factors, such as food safety, animal health, surveillance, feeding and slaughter practices.

As an added measure to ensure Australia’s food supply remains among the safest in the world, Australian officials may conduct in-country audits before imports are permitted.

Any country that doesn’t meet these new requirements will not be able to export beef to Australia.

Countries permitted to export beef products to Australia under the previous policy will be allowed to continue to do so, but will also be subject to a risk assessment of their systems and have until 30 June 2011 to request such an assessment.

Given Australia’s 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.

Media Inquiries:

Mr Crean’s office: Clinton Porteous 0403 369 588
Mr Burke’s office: Ann-Marie Wilcock 0413 872 275
Ms Roxon’s office: Laura Ryan 0409 945 476
Mr Butler’s office: Lisa Sedgwick 0421 444959