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Biosecurity risk - do Australians know where there food comes from?

By Shan Goodwin and Chris McLennan
Updated May 13 2022 - 7:17am, first published 7:00am
BARGAIN MEAT: These 340-gram cans of corned beef selling for $2.50 come from Brazil, where biosecurity risks have been identified.

Shoppers may be innocently helping to spread diseases with the potential to devastate Australia's livestock industries.

A little-understood biosecurity threat is hiding in cans and packets on our supermarket shelves, an ACM special investigation has found.

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Canned meat and fish arrives by the container load and some of it originates from countries with nasty livestock diseases Australia spends millions of dollars trying to keep out.

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Despite tight rules over how the mostly pre-cooked food is allowed in, some producers and meat industry leaders fear it is largely a self-regulated industry where one slip up could allow devastating diseases like foot and mouth or BSE (also known as mad cow disease) to slip through.

Unless a shopper closely examines the often-tiny labels of the canned or frozen product they are buying, most would be none the wiser of the risks involved.

Nor would they realise they are lining the pockets of Brazilian ranchers or European pork producers and big global food companies at the expense of Australian farmers when they opt for tinned imported meat at a third of the price of the Australian counterpart.

The Australian government has kept a tight hold on fresh beef imports, with only Japan and New Zealand allowed to ship steaks that compete with home-grown product.

The Netherlands, the US and Vanuatu have made applications but never finalised negotiations.

The first import permits for fresh chilled or frozen beef from Japan were issued in August 2018.

Beef in cans from overseas has been arriving since the early 2000s.

Volumes are relatively small at between 6000-9000 tonnes a year, and most comes from NZ, while less than 1000t comes from Brazil.

For countries other than NZ and Japan, only retorted (or heat treated) beef is permitted to be imported into Australia; not all canned goods are retorted.

The Department of Agriculture describes the retort process as "requiring that the goods have been hermetically sealed in a container before being heat treated to a minimum core temperature of 100 degrees Celsius".

The retort process is supposed to make the product commercially sterile and shelf stable, mitigating the disease transmission.

However a department spokesperson said cooking and/or canning alone does not eliminate the risk of FMD.

BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) is highly resistant to heat and other treatments and the retort process does not eliminate the risk of BSE.

The spokespersons aid consequently, additional import conditions require retorted beef to be sourced from animals born, raised and slaughtered in countries assessed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand and assigned a category one or two BSE risk rating.

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Brazil has been assessed category one, right alongside NZ and numerous other countries.

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Therefore, it is deemed to have comprehensive and well-established controls to prevent both the introduction and amplification of the BSE agent in its cattle population and contamination of the human food supply with the BSE agent.

Last year, Brazillian officials confirmed two cases of atypical BSE in cows, triggering a suspension of beef exports to China.

The World Organization for Animal Health investigated and did not make any change to Brazil's status as a negligible risk country for BSE.

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But plenty of cattle producers around the world are not convinced.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association in the US just last month renewed its call for the immediate suspension of fresh beef imports from Brazil.

NCBA has repeatedly called for a thorough audit of Brazil's animal health and food safety system, to ensure the safety of the US cattle herd.

In 2021, Brazilian exports to the US increased by 131 per cent and in the first three months of 2022, Brazil has already shipped more than 50,000 metric tons of fresh beef to the US.

The NCBA says Brazil has "a long history of failing to report BSE cases in a timely manner".

The Australian Beef Association's Brad Bellinger has long argued with authorities about imported beef in cans and the risk of BSE.

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Mr Bellinger said a senate inquiry in 2010 recommended banning all imports from countries with BSE but that was overturned.

He said it simply made no sense for Australia to take that risk - not only did it put the entire beef industry at risk, but people too.

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