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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
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Content WindowRural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee - 11/11/99 - Importation of salmon products into Australia
CHAIR —I welcome back to the table the witnesses from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AQIS. At this stage, I will invite Mr Gascoine to make some opening comments, even though you have been up here before. If there are any particular issues you want to draw the committee's attention to, please do so and then we will go back into questions.
Mr Gascoine —AQIS's supplementary submission to the committee's inquiry is in three parts: firstly, there is a progress report on the implementation of the new policies for the information of the committee; secondly, there are comments on issues concerning procedural matters which have arisen in the course of the inquiry; and, thirdly, we have made some comments on the more important scientific matters raised by witnesses in their submissions and in evidence presented. This information is additional to the material we have already provided in answers to questions addressed to us by the committee. I will just draw out some of the key points in our submission.
Firstly, in relation to the implementation of the new policies announced on 19 July, the main developments since AQIS's last appearance before the committee have been as follows. As you are aware, the final report of the import risk analysis has been prepared for publication and is now available. Secondly, AQIS has published two animal quarantine policy memoranda: the first, No. 69, dealing with importation of uncooked salmonid products, and the second, No. 70, dealing with the importation of specified thermally treated salmonid products—that is, smoked salmon, AQPM. Amongst other things, the latter, AQPM provides notification of withdrawal of permits under which smoked salmonid products have previously been imported, and the new permit requirements for import of certain non-salmonid fin fish product come into effect from 1 December.
In a further development, AQIS has agreed on certification arrangements with the relevant authorities of Canada and New Zealand, and discussions are continuing with the
United States and Denmark. As we understand it, to date under the new conditions, there has been approximately seven tonnes of salmon imported from New Zealand. As the committee is aware, meanwhile the WTO dispute settlement case taken by Canada has been proceeding.
In relation to procedural issues, we have singled out four aspects for comment. Firstly, the submission provides to the committee some information bearing upon claims that insufficient time or opportunity was provided for stakeholders to comment on the import risk analysis as it was prepared and that natural justice was therefore denied to the stakeholders. On this aspect, our submission points out that, firstly, very few new scientific issues have been raised with AQIS by stakeholders since previous risk analyses were completed in 1995 and 1996; and, secondly, stakeholders were given the opportunity to raise issues at a number of public meetings, some of which continued, as Mr Jeffriess pointed out this morning, until there were no more questions raised or statements to be made by the stakeholders in attendance.
I add in parenthesis that the executive officer of the Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association, Mr Tony Smithies, at one stage rang the executive director of AQIS to praise Dr Sarah Kahn's conduct of these public meetings as being exceptionally professional. As it happens, the TSGA has not mentioned in its evidence to the committee that AQIS had a separate teleconference with that association on 12 July and a meeting on 14 July after the public release of the risk management recommendations in the IRA. AQIS also had separate meetings with the Freshwater Anglers Council of Tasmania late in the risk analysis process.
Still on procedural matters, the second point is that our supplementary submission comments on the proposition that AQIS has approached the salmonid and related risk analyses from the perspective of trade implications. Our submission points out that AQIS's judgment on which restrictions are required is a matter of applying the appropriate level of protection set by the government to individual cases and that, in the application of the policy, AQIS pays no regard at all to the benefits or disbenefits of trade in salmonids or salmonid products.
Thirdly, the submission addresses comments by the Tasmanian Salmonid Growers Association in its submissions, in particular that AQIS has antagonistic working relations with a significant number of industries and that there is a lack of trust in both the people and the process. No written or oral evidence has been provided in support of these statements, and AQIS rejects any implication that the outcome of the risk analysis has been influenced in any way by the alleged antagonism or lack of fairness and professionalism on AQIS's part.
On the other hand, evidence is publicly available that the TSGA has contemplated strategies such as discrediting AQIS and individual officers in seeking retribution against them. The association has also canvassed amongst its members the possibility of engaging `the pork, chicken and other industries who hate AQIS' to assist the salmon industry in opposing AQIS. The committee may judge accordingly where any antagonisms may lie.
Incidentally, AQIS maintains a system for soliciting, recording and responding to client feedback. For this year, 1999, the feedback register contains approximately 125 reports. Of
these, only three relate to AQIS's policy functions and, of those three, only one is a negative comment on the import risk analysis process. Most responses to a separate survey on the consultation arrangements conducted by the Animal Quarantine Policy Branch early in 1999 expressed support for both the arrangements and the quality and quantity of information provided to stakeholders. Concerns raised by stakeholders in response to that survey have been or are being addressed.
The fourth procedural point in our supplementary submission provides some comments relevant to claims that AQIS, in its risk analysis, failed to address WTO requirements in various ways. In this respect, we would also refer the committee back to our first submission and Mr Hickey's introductory remarks on it.
Turning to the first part of our submission, which deals with scientific issues, there are, firstly, disease issues, in particular whirling disease and infectious salmonid anaemia; secondly, comments in relation to the validity of AQIS's scientific analysis; and, thirdly, environmental issues and the susceptibility of native species, amongst other matters mentioned in this submission. Many of the issues raised by others in evidence to the committee have been addressed by AQIS in answer to questions on notice from the committee.
In his written and oral testimony, Professor Nigel Forteath made a number of criticisms of AQIS's work. In order to provide the committee with an expert and independent commentary on Professor Forteath's contribution, AQIS referred his evidence to the independent scientists who had advised AQIS on the risk analysis. The responses of the eight scientists who replied are summarised in an attachment to our submission.
Essentially, they say that Professor Forteath identified no scientific issue not previously considered and that the matters he did raise warranted no additional consideration. The experts have pointed to various aspects of Professor Forteath's evidence which they consider to be misleading or incorrect. His evidence on the disease VHS, for example, is variously described by the experts as based on outdated references, incorrect, hopelessly confused and not based on evidence. His rejection of the reference by AQIS to `personal communications' in preparing the risk analysis is criticised by the experts as inappropriate and inconsistent with his own practice.
One international expert points out that the use of personal communications is the most useful way of keeping the contents of the report up to date, topical and valid and describes Professor Forteath's criticism on this issue as unfair, unscientific and missing the point. Another has commented that Professor Forteath is apparently unfamiliar with that expert's primary publications, more than 80 in number, on fish diseases.
As a separate matter, AQIS draws to the committee's attention that Professor Forteath has sought to discredit the competence of an AQIS officer who participated in the risk analysis process, even though that officer holds directly relevant academic qualifications—and we point out that, to our knowledge, Professor Forteath does not. That officer has had several years practical experience with the Tasmanian salmon farming industry. When formerly employed at the University of Tasmania, this person was repeatedly consulted by Professor Forteath on fish health issues, specifically on whirling disease.
AQIS has noted the strong concerns expressed by a number of witnesses about the risk of entry of this disease from countries where it is present. However, we remain of the view that the measures specified by AQIS to address this risk are fully adequate to the actual circumstances. The submission notes various inaccuracies in evidence provided to the committee on whirling disease. For example, the claim that Canada closed its borders to salmonid product from the USA may be correct in relation to the importation of live trout fingerlings into Alberta but is not generally true. To take one more minor point, the movie A River Runs Through It was made on the Blackfoot River, not the Madison, as claimed by Mr K. Orr of the Tasmanian Professional Trout Guides Association, at least according to Dr Beth MacConnell, and the decline of trout stocks in that river is attributed to heavy metal contamination, not to whirling disease.
In paragraphs 63 to 65 of the supplementary submission, we report comments provided by Dr A. Pinder, the author of a key publication on the distribution in Australia of oligochaetes, which includes the worm Tubifex, which is the intermediate host for whirling disease. Dr Pinder's advice supports the position taken by AQIS in the IRA. With respect to infectious salmonid anaemia, AQIS made further inquiries concerning claims to the committee that this disease occurs in Chile and Ireland, but we could find no supporting evidence.
AQIS has also followed up recent reports that ISA virus may be found in fish other than Atlantic salmon and is of the view that no further restriction on trade in salmonid products from Canada and New Zealand is warranted at the present time in light of this new information. However, in this case—that is, our restriction on imports of salmonids—as in the case of all other quarantine measures we apply, AQIS's obligation is to stay abreast of the relevant science and, where scientific evidence justifies, adjust quarantine requirements so as to maintain Australia's appropriate level of protection.
A range of comments have been made to the committee about the absence of scientific evidence concerning the vulnerability of native fish to exotic disease agents. AQIS's supplementary submission responds to Dr Purser's evidence to the committee on the taxonomy of the relevant native fish species and also to stakeholders' concerns that AQIS commissioned no scientific studies on susceptibility. On this latter issue, the key point is that, in its risk analysis, AQIS assumed that native fish would be susceptible to infection and the consequences of disease becoming established would be at least as severe as those reported overseas. Testing of native fish, if it were practical to do so, would therefore be unlikely to justify any tightening of quarantine policy. That concludes the statement, Mr Chairman, and we would be pleased to respond to any questions the committee may have.
Senator CALVERT —We heard some evidence this morning from the Victorian Trout Association particularly with regard to PKX or PKD, streptococcus bacteria and rainbow trout fry syndrome. Were all these matters covered by IRA?
Dr Kahn —The disease PKX and the disease VHS are covered in great detail in the risk analysis. We are just checking some of the details on the streptococcus. Some streptococcus species were covered, but I need to look into the details of the particular streptococcal disease that was raised in the testimony this morning, and similarly with the rainbow trout fry syndrome.
Just taking PKX for example, it was regarded as a high priority disease agent for assessment. In the risk analysis report, it is described as one of the most significant diseases of rainbow trout in Europe. It is a disease with perhaps, if you like, some similarities to whirling disease where an intermediate host is required, so direct fish to fish transmission does not occur with that disease on the basis of current knowledge.
We acknowledge in the report that rainbow trout would be the most susceptible species of the salmonid species in Australia. We note information on the epidemiology of the disease, and I think, broadly speaking, that is consistent with the testimony that we heard this morning.
I think the key thing is that, even though risk management measures were not deemed to be specifically warranted in the case of PKX, as the previous witness said, the organism is associated with blood rich organs, such as the gills, the liver, the spleen and the intestines and it can be found in muscle. So the measures that have been put in place to address all the other diseases of concern would be effective against PKX—measures such as evisceration, for example, or removal of the head and gills.
Senator CALVERT —What about cutlets?
Dr Kahn —Sorry, I should just say that this particular disease is not in New Zealand of course
Senator CALVERT —But we are allowing cutlets in from Canada, aren't we?
Dr Kahn —We certainly are, and the primary focus of the risk management measures there is removing the organs which have the highest probability of containing the largest number of organisms. That is the risk management approach we have taken to all the diseases of concern, and equally that approach applied to PKX. Because PKX occurs in countries where the other diseases occur, the set of risk management measures in total would address the risk associated with PKX.
Senator CALVERT —But there is more likelihood to have diseases in bone and gristle in cutlets than there is in ready-to-eat fillets, isn't there?
Dr Kahn —There is no evidence that PKX is associated with bone; it is really more associated with blood rich organs that would be removed at evisceration. That would be the risk management measure that has the most impact of all the single risk management measures individually.
Senator CALVERT —But that is not to say that blood would not be present in cutlets.
Dr Kahn —That is quite correct. There is not a zero risk setting on PKX, the same as there is not for the other organisms of concern.
Senator CALVERT —Under the current regimes or protocols, will AQIS allow product to be imported from farms that are known to have diseases such as furunculosis, PKD, whirling disease and other serious diseases.
Dr Kahn —The policies are, as they were announced in July, that we have not put measures specifically in place to address the disease status of a particular farm, other than the measures that relate to infectious salmon anaemia.
Senator CALVERT —So what you are saying is that, if there is a farm in Canada that has furunculosis, whirling disease or something else that does not have ISA, they will be able to export their product into Australia?
Dr Kahn —I must remind you that whirling disease is not in Canada, but yes to the rest of the question.
Senator CALVERT —Forget about whirling disease. There are dozens of these diseases. What about furunculosis then?
Dr Kahn —Yes.
Senator CALVERT —So they would be able to export that into Australia, knowing that they have disease on their farm?
Dr Kahn —The farms in Canada, for argument's sake, may have disease agents. They may have no prevalence of clinical disease—
Senator CALVERT —What about if they do have? If you know they have furunculosis on a farm, you will still allow product from that farm to come into Australia?
Dr Kahn —As I have stated, the policies only address infectious salmon anaemia at the farm level. For other diseases, the policies do not address the presence or the absence of a specific disease at the farm level.
Senator CALVERT —I ask you again: if a farm in Canada has furunculosis, there is nothing in place to stop them exporting salmon product into Australia.
Dr Kahn —There is certainly nothing in place that specifically addresses the fact that the farm does or does not have furunculosis. That is correct.
Senator CALVERT —It is a bit of concern to me, Mr Chairman, if we are allowing these fish in with disease, especially when you yourself, Dr Kahn, said—and I do not have the quotation here, but I can find it—when being interviewed after these new protocols were put in place that no disease would be coming into Australia.
Dr Kahn —I think it is important to point out the other range of measures that are part of the new policies. For example, the fish will be inspected, there will be a statement on the health certificate which has to accompany each consignment saying that they have been subject to an inspection and grading system, they have been supervised by a competent authority, the fish are fit for human consumption and the product is free from visible lesions associated with infectious disease. So the range of measures in total go to a very strict set of measures.
Senator CALVERT —Who is going to inspect these fish?
Dr Kahn —Competent authorities, such agencies being Canada Food Inspection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service or other agencies that are their agents.
Senator CALVERT —Do they inspect them while they are being processed or as the product is ready to be sold into Australia—in other words, in cutlet form?
Dr Kahn —My understanding is that, similar to Australia, inspection is a continuous process, so there are several stages at which the fish are inspected from when they are received into a factory through to when they are preparing the product to go out in its final presentation, whether that is a cutlet, a fillet or whatever.
Senator CALVERT —Some members of this committee went to Tassal's processing establishment at Dover and inspected their process. I do not think anybody would argue that their processing is as good as anywhere in the world. Would that be correct? Have you inspected their processing plant?
Dr Kahn —I have, yes. I think it is very good.
Senator CALVERT —It is good. Having been there and seen that, there would be plenty of cases there—and there were—where there are lesions that perhaps you cannot see. How can you guarantee? You can guarantee only what you can see on the outside. There is plenty of evidence of blood, mucus and gristle. Even when the backbone is taken out and filleted, there is still an opportunity. I guess that gets back to what is an acceptable risk. Is that right?
Dr Kahn —Yes, I guess we would say so.
Senator CALVERT —Will AQIS be testing any of this product that is coming in for exotic diseases? For instance, if you know there is fish coming in from a farm that has furunculosis, are you going to test for it here to see whether that fish has furunculosis or something similar when it comes in?
Dr Kahn —We have not proposed to test for any specific disease agent. The only testing that would be done as a routine on imported product would be if any is required under the food standards requirements where there is some testing for public health purposes, I believe.
Senator CALVERT —So for a product from a farm that could have or does have furunculosis coming into Australia, the only inspection that we know of is done at the place—by Canadians, if it is Canada where it is coming from—and nothing else is done until it comes into Australia and then it is released to the market. Is that right?
Dr Kahn —In Australia there would be an inspection at the port of entry, so to speak, to make sure that the fish is as described on the health certificate and that the requirements of certification are satisfied.
Senator CALVERT —To say that it came from a farm with furunculosis?
Dr Kahn —No, it would be to confirm that it meets the requirements of the new policies. So, for example, if it was being imported in consumer ready form, the inspectors on a random basis would do an inspection to confirm that the description of the fish on the health certificate matches with the type of product that is being imported. If the product is to be further processed under quarantine, then it would be directed to a quarantine approved premise for further processing. If that measure does not apply, then it would be released from the border with no further control.
Senator CALVERT —So we are relying on companies' goodwill and their own regimes, wherever it comes from, for their vets, inspectors and whatever to be able to sign a certificate to say that to their knowledge the fish conforms with all our protocols, and that is it, is it?
Dr Kahn —That is correct. That is consistent with our quarantine practice generally on the importation of products of animal origin for human consumption. We do generally accept the health certification that is provided by a competent authority, and we conduct inspections from time to time to verify that the systems are in place to support the provision of proper certification. That is pretty much the approach across the board. It is not unique to fish.
Senator CALVERT —I get back to what I said originally. If you are going to let fish into Australia from farms that are known to have furunculosis or other exotic diseases apart from ISA, what is the point of having the Fish Health Surveillance Program, for instance?
Dr Kahn —The value in the surveillance and monitoring system is that the competent authority knows what is happening. They know, for example, if a disease such as ISA is present or if it is not present. They are informed on the emergence of new diseases, new disease syndromes, and they can provide certification to Australia that is a true reflection of the fish health status of the population from which the fish have come.
Senator CALVERT —So if you inspect the fish at the border when it comes in and the inspectors here find some of that fish has perhaps a lesion or something that has been missed by the inspectors in Canada, will AQIS allow that consignment to be on-sold?
Dr Kahn —Again, there is a fairly standard set of procedures. If anything improper is detected at the port of entry inspection, normally they would at least hold the consignment while they check and find out what the problem is. For example, the health certificate may not be with the consignment, and the usual thing to do is hold the consignment, check into the problem, decide if there is testing or any other sort of action required—maybe something could be dealt with by directing the product to a quarantine approved premise for further processing. If it is something that cannot be handled in Australia, the product could well be rejected, required to be re-exported or destroyed—all of that at the importer's cost.
Senator CALVERT —But if it comes in without a health certificate, surely to goodness, it should be disposed of straightaway because you will not know where it came from.
Dr Kahn —They investigate and they take appropriate action.
Senator CALVERT —We heard this morning—I do not know how true it is—that trout came into the market from a trout producer and fish came in from New Zealand in another container and one container went back to the trout farm and there had been New Zealand salmon in that container. Do those sorts of things concern you at this early stage in the importation of New Zealand salmon where there is always a risk perhaps?
Dr Kahn —The Director of Fisheries, Victoria, has written to us on that point, and we have provided a response. I would be happy to provide that to the committee. I think the important thing to bear in mind is that, in looking at Pacific salmon from New Zealand, AQIS has come to the conclusion that that product, if it is imported as an eviscerated product with a health certificate, represents a negligible risk. The risk of translocation within Australia of some of the endemic fish diseases that have a regional distribution is far greater by means of those sorts of practices—the failure to wash bins and holding equipment and so forth. There would be a far greater risk of disseminating some of the endemic diseases more widely in Australia than the vanishingly small risk that is associated with mucus or remnants of blood and this type of thing being a vector for whirling disease.
Senator CALVERT —You have said that Pacific salmon coming in from New Zealand is a negligible risk. If you took the heads off and the gills out, would that risk be less?
Dr Kahn —In the case of Pacific salmon from New Zealand, which has such a very low prevalence—it can really be described as a vanishingly slight prevalence—removal of the head and gills would not make any significant difference to quarantine risk.
Senator CALVERT —But, in the evidence you submitted, I think you cited the fact that there has been one case in 5,700 tested that carried whirling disease. Whirling disease is carried more prevalently in the gills and the head. Therefore, if you did not have the head and gills, the chance of whirling disease coming in would be very, very low. What is the advantage of sending salmon from New Zealand here with a head on? What is the value of the head? Is it just for looks?
Dr Kahn —I cannot comment on the value of the head, but the starting point for risk management has got to be that it is based on a scientifically ascertained risk. If there is not a basis for that decision to remove the head, then you are not really putting in a measure that is supported by your scientific evidence. I suppose that is why the New Zealanders, when it has been drawn to their attention by AQIS that there is no good reason to take the head off Australian salmon exported to New Zealand, agreed with that assessment on a scientific basis and have proposed to drop that requirement from their current import health standard.
Mr Gascoine —In terms of the WTO SPS agreement, our obligation is to achieve our appropriate level of protection in the least trade restrictive way. If there is no incremental risk from having the head on and the gills still in, our obligation is to allow that.
Senator CALVERT —New Zealand must have had different advice from us, because they require us to take ours off, don't they?
Mr Gascoine —Dr Khan has just said that they have now reconsidered their situation and they are now proposing an alternative approach which would be consistent with ours.
Senator CALVERT —Was that as a result of the visit that you and Mr Hickey made to New Zealand?
Mr Gascoine —I would like to think so, but it is more likely that they recognised from representations we have been making over a period that the position they had in place in their requirements was untenable.
Senator CALVERT —Getting back to whirling disease, the information we had this morning from the Victorian Trout Association quoted Beth MacConnell a good deal. She said that it is a matter of when, not if, whirling disease comes. She talked about it being a highly sophisticated parasite that perhaps came in with frozen trout from Denmark. She said that the thing is almost indestructible. I am not suggesting banning New Zealand salmon, but removing the head and gills would perhaps make things that much better in the case of the disease that I have described. If it ever got in here, it would be very difficult to get rid of, wouldn't it?
Dr Kahn —We have certainly consulted Dr MacConnell. Canada and Alaska being free from whirling disease, there is obviously a level of concern and a determination to keep diseases out. Notwithstanding that, the position of the Canadian authorities is that, at this rate, salmonid product can freely enter Canada.
Senator CALVERT —So that is all they require?
Dr Kahn —That is correct.
Senator CALVERT —Hence, they still allow the head to be on?
Dr Kahn —Yes. Their restrictions are aimed at live fish. Authorities generally recognise that the movement of live salmonids, particularly young fish, is a much better vehicle for transmission of disease, including whirling disease.
Senator CALVERT —I have one quick question, and it is something you probably heard me raise this morning. In all the scientific evidence you collected—and I am not arguing about that—a lot of your risk analysis, in fact nearly all of it, is based on what has happened overseas. Just how much did you take into account the fact that our water temperature is so much warmer than that of the Northern Hemisphere? It seems likely that it is going to be warmer for much longer this year. That in itself creates a problem with the salmon growers, regardless of an introduced disease. It seems to me from what I have read that diseases like furunculosis and others that are being discounted somewhat in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment because of the cold temperature are much more virulent in a warmer temperature. Do you believe that was taken into account sufficiently?
Dr Kahn —Yes, it was. Of our reviewing scientists, 10 of them are Australia based scientists, including people who have had lengthy experience with salmon production and salmon farming. We have specifically put to them the concerns that have been raised with us by stakeholders on the question of local environmental conditions, the susceptibility of Australian fish to disease and so forth. Their advice to us is pretty clearly set out in the final
report. The various statements that scientists have provided to us actually appear in a couple of pages of the report.
Senator CALVERT —Do you still believe that, because of the salmon farmers' low stocking rates, the fish are so healthy that they are less susceptible to disease because they do not get stressed as much?
Dr Kahn —Our judgment is that you have to properly take into account whatever is relevant to the fish, the stocks and the environmental conditions in looking at questions such as susceptibility to disease, the impact of disease and so forth. At no time have we said that salmon in Australia are not going to be susceptible to disease on account of environmental conditions, stocking rates or something of this nature. We have said that those things have to be taken into account, and we have consulted the reviewing scientists—including the 10 who are Australia based—to make sure that our professional judgment fits well with the opinions of experts in the various fish health fields.
Senator CALVERT —Have all those Australian scientists visited fish farms and seen how the operations have to be handled because of amoebic gill disease and seen the effect of high temperatures and the stress that this places on the fish? Did they physically go and inspect those places and see all that?
Dr Kahn —I could not say that all of them have visited fish farms in Tasmania or any specific fish farms, but they were people who, within the Australian scientific community, are well recognised—in a lot of cases, internationally recognised—for the width and the depth of their experience in fish health and in the management of fish.
Senator CALVERT —I have known Professor Forteath for quite some time and have inspected his work, but he is not very well recognised according to your evidence. I have seen the work he has done in Launceston in the university there. I would have thought he knew a little bit about fish, but I cannot see how these people can comment on situations when they have not been to see them. How many of the 15 independent scientists actually visited a fish farm in Tasmania? I know you have been there, but that was after the event.
Mr Gascoine —I do not think either of us knows the answer to that offhand. We suspect we may have answered that question on notice, but if we have not we can check for you.
Senator CALVERT —It probably is here in this pile of documents. I know you have been rather busy, but to receive your submission the day before yesterday did put a bit of pressure on us too. Perhaps if we had had it a bit earlier, our questions might have been a bit more pertinent.
Mr Gascoine —On that point, can I say we regret that we were unable to give it to the committee any earlier than we did and, yes, we have been very busy on this and other issues. If there are questions arising from our submission which the committee wishes to put to us subsequently, we would be more than happy to answer those questions.
Senator CALVERT —I have no doubt about that.
Mr Gascoine —Could I just comment on this point about the scientific experts we used and whether they had visited fish farms. We believe that some of them are very familiar with operations on fish farms. When they were discussing issues at meetings or in teleconferences, all of them had access to the experience of the others, as relevant to the matter they had under consideration. Furthermore, some of the information that is most relevant to this particular issue is available in a quite straightforward fashion from the literature and submissions which people have made to us on the water temperatures and how fish behave at different water temperatures, as is the information on common practices in the industry in removing fish from the water and washing them, and so forth.
Senator CALVERT —What is the name of that scientist whom you have quoted a lot?
Mr Gascoine —McVicar.
Senator CALVERT —He is quoted as saying that the fish are airlifted when in fact that is not right. They are not airlifted. I have seen that myself.
Mr Gascoine —So have I.
Senator CALVERT —Surely if these people had visited these farms, they would have realised that. If he is wrong on that, you would have to say that perhaps he might be wrong on something else.
Senator O'BRIEN —The import risk assessment that is the subject of this inquiry commenced after a number of other inquiries. I want to refer to the report of the National Taskforce on Imported Fish and Fish Products of December 1996 which involves members from the Commonwealth government, the then Department of Primary Industries and Energy, state governments, research institutions, conservation groups, the recreational fishing sector and industry. In relation to pilchards for tuna feed, ornamental fish, prawns for recreational boat rock-walks, lobster boat, whole fish—including green crustacea for human consumption—prawn meal and whole molluscs, they found that, as at December 1996, those imports had not yet undergone a full risk assessment process. While the precise extent and nature of the risk is not known, based on the BRS report principles they are considered to be higher risk, thus warranting immediate action to reduce the risk associated with their use.
My understanding is that, at the time, it was proposed that import risk assessments be completed by December 1998. I know that in answer to question 1194 the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry advised that the original risk assessment completion dates were to be in September 1998 for ornamental fin fish, May 1998 for freshwater crayfish, prawns and prawn products, and February 1999 for non-viable bi-valve molluscs and non-viable marine fin fish. Can you take us through the reason why those very important analyses were not completed in accordance with the schedule, which was established in 1996-97?
Mr Gascoine —Yes, we can. I just make the general and obvious remark that the salmon and non-viable marine fin fish and ornamental fish import risk analyses have not necessarily ever had to be given priority. Under the circumstances in which we found ourselves, with a decision by the WTO appellate body on these commodities, our measures were not in
conformity with our WTO obligations. That has had the effect of causing a reshuffling of the timetable. We have completed our risk analyses on those three commodities and we are progressing, as best we can, on the others. I will ask Dr Kahn to bring us up to date on we are on those other risk analyses and what the prospects are.
Dr Kahn —As Mr Gascoine has said, we have at least managed to address quite a number of the high priority areas in the recently completed risk analysis. I should point out that, in addition to looking at non-viable, non-salmonid marine fin fish, we also looked at extending the measures that were announced in July to freshwater fin fish because there were clearly some areas of commonality. So the risk measurement measures have gone equally across freshwater fin fish products and marine fin fish products, as well as the salmon. Live fish was another area identified as high priority and so live ornamental fish have been dealt with in recently announced new policies, with a tightening up of the measures, as the committee has already heard.
We have a risk analysis on non-viable prawns and prawn product under way. It has been delayed because we had to redirect our resources to get the salmon job finished first. We are now hoping that by the end of this year we will have completed discussions with the risk analysis panel on prawns and we would hope to bring out a draft risk analysis report by perhaps April or May next year. Necessarily, there will be some delays over the holiday period. Some of the scientists on the risk analysis panel are not available for consultation over the Christmas break and also, depending on the further work that we have to do on the WTO case, some of the people in the fish quarantine policy group, including me, are going to be pretty tied up on that. So it will be a little difficult to make a firm undertaking on the date for the draft report for prawns.
We have also commenced work on freshwater crayfish, and I believe we have had a consultant's report on the diseases of concern. I will ask my colleague to come to the table to make a few comments about the freshwater crayfish risk analysis. That was another of the high priority areas. We have put together a risk analysis panel on the molluscs. We have had some preliminary discussions with the panel but I do not believe we have brought out any draft report yet, and that would be a few months off.
Dr Beers —We put interim restrictions on the importation of freshwater crayfish in 1996 pending the outcome of the IRA. As Dr Khan said, we commissioned a consultant's report on diseases of crayfish. We have also commissioned experimental work on crayfish plague, which is the organism that the national task force was most concerned about, and that work is under way in the United Kingdom at the moment. We have put out a technical issues paper on freshwater crayfish importation, but further progress has been delayed because of resources having to deal with the WTO issues. We have commenced an import risk analysis on the importation of molluscs. We have commissioned consultants to do a review of diseases affecting bivalve molluscs, and we are still waiting for the final report to be submitted.
Senator O'BRIEN —When you say that there was a need to divert resources to the WTO challenge, given that you have made an estimated cost of each of the previously announced risk assessments, what was the cost of providing the resources for the WTO case?
Mr Gascoine —We have previously estimated that the aggregate cost to Australia of the WTO case and associated activities has been of the order of a million dollars.
Senator O'BRIEN —Is that from AQIS, or from AQIS and other agencies?
Mr Gascoine —No. That is for the Australian government as a whole. But I do not think that we have made an estimate of the amount of resources that we have had to divert from some aquatic risk analysis activities to others. We could make such an estimate if you require it.
Senator O'BRIEN —I can tell you that someone did make an estimate of the cost of each of the five risk analyses that were proposed in December at $300,000 each.
Mr Gascoine —What I said, Senator, was that we are unable to advise you now of the cost of the resources which had to be diverted from those activities in recent times across to the salmon risk analysis.
Senator O'BRIEN —But most of those processes were either rolled into the WTO case or deferred, weren't they?
Mr Gascoine —We have continued with all of those activities as best we can. We have been able to continue with some to a better extent than others.
Senator O'BRIEN —I am just trying to understand why it was not feasible to complete those cases, given that the ballpark figure you are talking about and the $1.5 million that you previously told me those five processes would cost do not seem to be compatible.
Mr Gascoine —Our timetable was predicated on some assumptions about what resources we would be putting into salmon and non-viable marine finned fish and ornamental fish and what resources we would have to put into those other risk analyses, given that we had a finite quantity of resources to devote to the task. We have some flexibility insofar as we can apply money to buying in additional expertise from outside—and we have done that to a very large extent, especially on salmon—but the pool of resources in Australia, and in fact worldwide, on which we can draw for this work is quite limited. It cannot be rapidly expanded. So when the salmon case and the salmon risk analysis—and, I might say, the inquiry by your committee—placed additional demands on us, necessarily, we had to pull resources away from those other areas.
Senator O'BRIEN —This committee's inquiry did not commence until after the process had been concluded.
Mr Gascoine —That is true, but the timetables we have described to you for the continuation of these risk analyses now reflects the fact that we have been devoting resources to all of these activities in recent months. I was not implying in any way that the diversion of resources which took place last year was attributable to having to prepare submissions for the committee—of course not.
Senator O'BRIEN —On the question of importation of pilchards, I noticed in an answer to question No. 1191, dated 12 July this year, that there was a testing process on pilchards conducted between September 1995 and March 1996 which tested over six months 360 fish from 63 sample batches—that is about six fish per batch—without detecting any of the targeted viral or exotic bacteria. Then AQIS, in consultation with the Chief Veterinary Officer of Australia, decided that testing should cease—this is on the pilchard deaths issue, given that they are part of the issue we are addressing here. Does that mean that AQIS is confident that there is no problem with pilchards in their being carriers of disease pathogens?
Dr Kahn —We have certainly not identified any specific disease agent in relation to which we would need to have disease specific risk management for pilchards. In common with other non-salmonid fish product, we have introduced a range of measures that will apply to the importation of pilchards. As one of the earlier witnesses said this morning, the matter remains under review. Depending on scientific developments, we may well change that position in future.
Senator O'BRIEN —But they will not be scientific developments initiated by AQIS. Is that what you are saying? Someone else might test and find something?
Dr Kahn —That is right, or any development in scientific knowledge. So testing or observed events in wild fisheries, anything like that, we would take into account and if necessary we could change the measures in light of the policy review.
Mr Gascoine —We would initiate whatever steps we thought were appropriate in the event that some new information came to hand that told us that the risk assessment that we have in place on pilchards was potentially in need of review.
Senator O'BRIEN —As I understand it, our importation of, for example, bait fish and feed fish has been a big issue insofar as the finding of inconsistency is concerned. Would the ongoing testing of pilchards potentially establish whether there was a disease carried in pilchards which might have been introduced? I am trying to understand how this is going to be advanced. I am not sure who has an interest in providing the science upon which AQIS might ultimately rely.
Dr Kahn —There is a scientific working group looking at the whole question of pilchard mortalities. They have identified a series of research priorities for Australia. I believe a lot of that is about the diagnostic methods, the ability to grow the virus and the ability to study the virus that is in Australia and New Zealand to find out some information about its origin, risk factors and how we can be better prepared in future. AQIS is not driving the agenda. We will certainly take account of any information that comes to light as a result of the scientific work that that group commissions.
Senator O'BRIEN —In terms of fish products that are imported under the current protocol—you may already have answered this, at least in part—as I understand it, it is proposed to undertake only a visual inspection of the actual fish, and this is apart from checking the written protocols which would need to accompany the imported consignments. But, as I understand what you are saying, there will be only a visual inspection performed and no other testing performed on the scientific sampling, tissue testing, et cetera?
Dr Kahn —That is correct. There would be no testing for fish health purposes. There may be some testing for public health purposes under the food standards requirements, if it is product for human consumption.
Senator O'BRIEN —There is no intention to review that decision? That is a fixed decision? You do not have a process to keep that under review?
Mr Gascoine —All these requirements that we have specified are subject to review and change at any time at which we have the evidence that they no longer represent an appropriate response to assessed risk. If evidence were to come to us of behaviour of a particular disease, for example, which was significantly different from the way in which our previous risk analysis had considered it, then we would analyse that and potentially change our measures according to circumstances.
Senator O'BRIEN —That is the checking measures protocol?
Mr Gascoine —Any measures.
Senator O'BRIEN —How would AQIS go about reassessing this risk assessment if any of the conclusions which had been reached were found to have been invalid? Would that require a whole new IRA process?
Mr Gascoine —It would depend on the circumstances. Generally the preference is to follow the process which is set out in the AQIS risk analysis process handbook. Certainly we would follow that process in relation to any potentially significant change in circumstances and significant change in requirements. If it was essentially a matter of a minor nature, then we would proceed, probably by some more informal means. It would be a matter for judgment as to which way we should go. We would simply have to look at the evidence and decide how best to proceed.
Senator O'BRIEN —Then it does not necessarily mean that you would need to conduct a full import risk assessment if you wanted to change the protocols—is that what you are saying?
Mr Gascoine —I should add that if evidence came to us that suggested strongly that the risk analysis was not appropriate any more and that our measures were not controlling risk adequately, we would probably act first to introduce new interim measures on a provisional basis to address what we understood to be the changed risk and then proceed to conduct a more measured analysis, depending again on the circumstances.
Senator O'BRIEN —I understand what you are saying. I understand that you are being careful not to rule everything in or out, but as a general rule, if you had in mind varying the protocols, you would put in place temporary restrictions which exceeded the current protocols while you conducted another import risk assessment. Do I understand you correctly?
Mr Gascoine —As I said, if we perceived there was a serious risk which our measures were not addressing, yes, we would act first and then analyse. If the evidence was not
strong, the apparent increase in risk was not great, we would proceed to conduct an analysis. It is very much according to circumstances.
Senator O'BRIEN —What are the WTO implications of following such a process?
Mr Gascoine —We are entitled, as a member of the WTO, to impose measures on a provisional basis under article 5.7 if we think that there is insufficient scientific evidence to justify measures, provided that we then proceed to seek out the evidence necessary to provide a scientific justification for our measures. There are notification requirements under the SPS agreement and, in circumstances when we apply a measure on an emergency basis, we are entitled, under the procedure that has been agreed, to apply that measure first and to make the notification as soon as possible thereafter. In effect, we do not have to wait for 60 days of public comment from other members of the WTO in such circumstances.
Senator O'BRIEN —Would those provisions apply were there to be some identified deficiency in your current risk assessment process and its outcomes?
Mr Gascoine —Yes.
Senator O'BRIEN —Just digressing for a minute, Dr Kahn, in relation to your answers to Senator Calvert about the issues of whirling disease not being present in Canada, it struck me from evidence that we have received that there is a strong indication that whirling disease is likely to find its way into Canada.
Dr Kahn —I have certainly read references that say that it threatens Canada, and it is quite possibly on the cards that it will eventually turn up in Canada. The point I was trying to make is that in terms of quarantine policies even the Canadians, who have a lot to lose in respect of whirling disease, have their restrictions on live fish and they do not have as strict restrictions on product by a long way.
Senator O'BRIEN —Nevertheless, if whirling disease found its way into Canada, would that have implications for our quarantine measures as established under this import risk analysis? Does that change the circumstance?
Dr Kahn —Not really, because we have looked at a number of diseases which present unacceptable risks and have really addressed that in that most countries of the world have several of the diseases of concern, the one exception to that being New Zealand.
Senator O'BRIEN —And the fact that whirling disease is present in the United States leads me to the question whether there is anything in our protocol which prevents the importation of fish product from the United States.
Dr Kahn —There is nothing in the policy announcement that would prevent it in principle, but at the present time we have not concluded a certification agreement with the US, so we are not in a position to issue any import permit for salmonid product from the US. But at some time in the future, if we conclude a health certificate agreement, we would be able to issue import permits.
Senator O'BRIEN —We have one with Canada.
Dr Kahn —On an interim basis.
Senator O'BRIEN —When was that reached?
Dr Kahn —I would have to check the date. I am not sure exactly.
CHAIR —Was it recently, within the last month?
Dr Kahn —It was before that. It could be five weeks ago.
Senator O'BRIEN —You said it was an interim one.
Dr Kahn —An interim health certificate, yes.
Senator O'BRIEN —What does that mean?
Dr Kahn —That is how the Canadians have described it, as an interim health certificate. It applies to wild Pacific salmon from Canada and not to other types of product. It really just provides for import permits to be issued in respect of wild Pacific salmon.
Senator O'BRIEN —That is the only product that Canada can export to Australia?
Dr Kahn —That is the only one it covers, yes, at the moment.
Senator O'BRIEN —Are the protocols for establishing that normally a public document? Are there conditions laid down on the accreditation or is it subject to our importation protocols simply saying that that product can be exported from Canada to Australia?
Dr Kahn —The conditions under which product can be exported are set out in our import conditions, which are in a quarantine policy memorandum. In the report of the risk analysis, we have stated that we recognise competent authorities, in Canada, for example, which is the basis for then agreeing a health certificate. It is an agreement between AQIS and the relevant competent authority in the exporting country.
Senator O'BRIEN —So that is the sort of protocol which would establish the agreement?
Dr Kahn —Yes.
Senator O'BRIEN —I refer to the evidence that we received about the Victorian trout industry. I think you have already answered some questions from Senator Calvert. This afternoon we received some evidence that suggested that an import regime which would allow only skinless, boneless fillets to enter the country would provide a significantly better level of protection than the measures which AQIS has proposed in relation to salmon species. I would like you to comment on that.
Dr Kahn —As you can see, the report of the risk analysis is a pretty solid and comprehensive document and I suppose I would say we stand by the conclusions in that report. Our measures are very strict by international standards. They are still the subject of complaints by the Canadians on account of their stringency. They go well beyond the sorts of measures that other countries have in place on salmonid product and, in our view and in our professional judgment, they provide the level of protection that is consistent with Australia's ALOP and, as it is a client, to trade in other animals and animal products.
Senator O'BRIEN —I hear what you say. I guess the question I asked was whether a restriction which allowed only skinless, boneless portions would provide a better level of protection.
Dr Kahn —I think it would possibly provide a different level of protection. There is a number of mechanisms whereby that could arise. For example, if you put measures in place that effectively virtually limited trade to the point where there was no trade, that would present a different level of protection. But, certainly on the basis of our scientific analysis, we do not feel that more stringent measures are warranted in order to achieve a high level of protection in quarantine terms.
Senator O'BRIEN —I guess we can bat the words about, but given the suggestion that certain diseases are more likely to be present in skin or cartilage it seems that there is a view in parts of industry and at least in parts of the scientific community that skinless, boneless portions provide a higher level of protection. I guess I am asking whether you share that view, whatever your views are about your current findings as to their adequacy.
Mr Gascoine —There is a range of ways conceivably in which risk could be further reduced, although there is not much scope left for reducing risk if our judgment is correct. If that risk is already negligible with the conditions which we have specified, then there is not much risk left. But conceivably that tiny amount of risk that is left could be further reduced, for example, by requiring that fish only be brought in in packaged, consumer ready form, skin off and bone off, so that there is an even further reduction in the possibility that some of the fish might be discarded.
We certainly contemplated all such possibilities when we were carrying out the risk analysis. What the risk analysis resulted in, though, was a specification of a set of conditions which we thought met the appropriate level of protection. Therefore there was, in our view, no justification for adopting measures which would be even more restrictive on the volume or nature of product which could be imported.
It would probably be helpful to the committee to point out that the conditions which we have specified do not allow actually much skin in large amounts, whole frames, heads or gills to be imported. Heads and gills could come in from New Zealand on salmon, for example, but not from other countries. Other product from other countries might come in with some bone in and some skin on but in the form of consumer ready portions—cutlets or pieces of fillet for example. So the difference between the measures we have specified and only allowing product in with skin off and bone out may be very small indeed.
CHAIR —I would like to follow this up and, first of all, get precisely where whole fish can come in from. Is that only from New Zealand?
Dr Kahn —Are you speaking of salmonid products?
Dr Kahn —From New Zealand we are allowing eviscerated salmonid product—Pacific salmon.
CHAIR —So that is in effect the whole fish—with the head and the gills.
Dr Kahn —Minus the viscera.
CHAIR —I want to get this down to a level that people out there can understand. We heard earlier on—I am not sure who said it but I think it was Mr Gascoine—that quarantine needed to be conducted in the least trade restrictive way. It seems to me that not having the non-consumable part of the fish—that is, the head and the gills and what have you—could hardly be considered as being trade restrictive. If you turn around and say, `You can't bring in some of the meat off the fish,' for some reason or other, you can start arguing about the detail in terms of being trade restrictive. But when you are talking about the backbone, the fins, the tail, the gills, the gut and the head, nobody has yet said to me out on the ground that in fact by not allowing that to come in you are going to create a trade problem.
First of all, Mr Deady, I am not questioning the integrity of the science; I am questioning the commonsense approach, if you like, of what is the important part of the traded product. I would not have thought the backbone was particularly important to people trying to sell the fish. In terms of applying the WTO rules or the SPS agreements, is there anything there that says that if there is a quarantine question the correct trade position is that the animal or fish is whole?
Mr Deady —The only regulation the WTO has is that, as Mr Gascoine mentioned earlier today, it has to be in the least trade restrictive form. It does not specify what that is, but I make the point that that is a commercial judgment. Certainly, fish sells with heads on for the centrepiece for restaurant trade or whatever, so there is an argument that requiring fish to have its head off restricts that country's access to that portion of the Australian market. It may be a very small portion—I do not know—but I think it is a fact that an element of trade does take place with the head on, et cetera.
Miss Hird —I think some of the domestic suppliers' product lists have different categories. That can be a guide as to what is sold in the market depending on what, say, Tassals is selling. They publish a product list.
CHAIR —But that is in a disease free state, isn't it?
Mr Deady —Again, that is the other side of your question. It does get down to the risk measure having to be consistent with our appropriate level of protection and in the least trade restrictive way. That is the balance that is required, but I do not think it is fair to say
that because a very minimal amount of the market might be open to fish with the head on that nevertheless there is trade for that product; that if you restrict it then I think you are restricting access to that element of the market. If there is no scientific quarantine justification for that, then that is the WTO problem that you run into.
CHAIR —But it gets right into the arena of the least trade restrictive mechanism or matter.
Mr Deady —Consistent with your appropriate level of protection.
Miss Hird —I meant to add that I recall that there are some Canadian trade statistics that they do export whole eviscerated fish primarily to the United States—about 96 per cent goes to the United States—but it does go in a form other than fillets in the more round whole form.
CHAIR —But in effect the US, as I understand it, have the same diseases as Canada, don't they?
Miss Hird —Yes, but it is also exporting to Japan.
CHAIR —I cannot comment on Japan. Following that through to its logical conclusion, and dealing with people on the ground in terms of that, the impact of not having the bones, head and other bits and pieces in terms of trade would be very minimal indeed, would it not?
Mr Gascoine —I do not think we are in a position to make that judgment.
CHAIR —Who does make that judgment in making the decision about whether or not it comes in as a whole fish when you link it back to quarantine?
Mr Gascoine —Our obligation is to make a judgment about what is necessary in terms of quarantine protection. We are really precluded from making a judgment about what will or will not sell in Australia, about what Australian consumers do or do not want—and if you look at the implications of that in terms of our exports, it is the best situation to be in. After all, we do not want to be in a situation where Japanese authorities are able to say to us, `Japanese consumers don't want Tasmanian apples, so for that reason we are not going to let them in.'
Senator CALVERT —They want Tasmanian fish because it is disease free.
Mr Gascoine —Indeed they do.
Senator CALVERT —The moment you start letting fish in with furunculosis and IHN from an infected farm you cannot do that, can you?
CHAIR —I think you are missing the point I am trying to make. It is a restriction against Canada. It is not related to a restriction within Australia. If you asked the great percentage of the Australian community, `Should we or should we not take any risk in introducing
salmonoid diseases into Australia?' most of them would say no. That would be their instant first reaction. But in your position and in our position we have to take into account other considerations such as trade. That is our responsibility.
Coming back to the thing of making that decision, the point I am trying to get to is that it is the case, as you have already told us, that in Canada they can only export fillets or cutlets of fish into Australia, but in dealing with this in New Zealand, the issue was raised with us before by the trout fisherman about whirling disease. Once again, you make judgments about that. The point I want to come back to is a follow-up to Senator O'Brien's question, which I do not think you really answered, Dr Kahn. We have consistently been told that the risk factor in terms of any of these diseases being carried is that somewhere in excess of 80 per cent of it lies in the bones, the gills or the various bits and pieces and not in the fillets of fish. If that is correct, it seems to me to be a very small additional step to take in allowing the bulk of the product to come in but at the same time almost totally eliminate the disease risk factor.
Is the information—and you can dig it up in the submissions and it has been said verbally—correct that we have been given? Does that increase the lessening of the risk of it coming in to that extent? That should be a yes or no answer. I do not think we need long and complicated answers to that. All I am asking is: is most of the disease carried in the head, gills and bones?
Dr Kahn —The head, the gills and the guts is where most of the disease agents are located. The minimum requirement for fish, other than for New Zealand, is that they come in head off, gilled and gutted. They also have to be further processed to consumer ready form, which addresses the fact that some agents are associated with the skin. For example, the skinless fillet can be any size, but if it is a cutlet which has some central bone and outside skin then that is a maximum size of 450 grams. Likewise, with a small trout—say, with the head off and gutted—as long as it is less than 450 grams, it is regarded as a consumer ready product. Taking off the head, gills and guts removes most of the disease agents. It is reflective of where the agents are located in the fish.
CHAIR —The additional step of the guts coming out would lower the disease risk. You could use that for fish meal if it came here, but it is not likely. We heard evidence from the freshwater trout fishermen this morning and listened to their concerns. Unless they are giving us information that is absolutely and totally wrong—I have no reason to believe that and I am not in a position yet to make a judgement on that—it would seem to me to be a very small step further to take in terms of allowing product, the part that we eat, to come into Australia from New Zealand, especially in regard to the questions they raised about whirling disease.
Dr Kahn —There are some incorrect statements. We heard people say that whirling disease is in Canada, for example, and it is not. It is not in Alaska.
CHAIR —I am talking about New Zealand—I am not talking about Canada. You have corrected that. I am talking about the evidence that was given to us today about New Zealand and whirling disease. I do not expect you to necessarily answer that on the spot because you may need to go back through the evidence that was put down today or to
address that particular part of the submission. But I think we need that addressed as a committee.
Dr Kahn —There is no new evidence on whirling disease in New Zealand that has come up today that I have heard. The prevalence of the condition is very low, the prevalence of infection is very low and they do a very high level of testing. The amount of surveillance and monitoring that New Zealand does would detect even subclinical infection if it were present. They have had only something like two cases of clinical disease in about 20 years. They have done extensive testing of export farms—that is, the farms that export Pacific salmon, the product that we are talking about importing. They have tested, as we have heard numerous times, about 5,700 fish. They have come up with one positive. On all that evidence, the prevalence is extremely low.
CHAIR —Has the whirling disease in New Zealand been found only in the wild or has it been found on the farms?
Dr Kahn —It has been found in trout hatcheries, for example. So it has been found in farmed fish.
CHAIR —But you said there are only two cases of it having been found.
Dr Kahn —Clinical disease has only been found on two occasions.
CHAIR —What is the difference?
Dr Kahn —The fact is that infection, clinical disease, is very uncommon. If you get infection in salmonids, then rainbow trout are most likely to express the disease because they are more susceptible than the other types of salmonids. So, even in that susceptible species, the prevalence is very low.
Mr Gascoine —The distinction between clinical disease and infection is that the fish, if they are infected, can have the organism but not be sick. If they have clinical disease, they are sick. Is that correct?
Dr Kahn —Yes.
CHAIR —Can both forms pass it on? Remember you are talking to a layman now, not a scientist.
Dr Kahn —Yes. The spores can be present, but you would expect there to be a much higher number in a clinically diseased animal than in one that was carrying infection but was apparently healthy. For example, the one that tested positive in the Pacific salmon was an asymptomatic. It was an apparently healthy fish, but it came up positive in their testing.
CHAIR —So when you say `the two', what does that apply to?
Dr Kahn —Two clinical cases of whirling disease in New Zealand in the last 20 years. It is a very low prevalence of disease.
CHAIR —That deals with the clinical side of it. How many on the infectious side?
Dr Kahn —In terms of rainbow trout?
Dr Kahn —I could not tell you the number off-hand. It is very low. Rainbow trout are the most susceptible to expressing disease and, if there is such a low level of disease, it reflects a very low prevalence of infection—even lower in the case of Pacific salmon.
CHAIR —But, in the right circumstances, that could transfer to freshwater trout in Australia?
Dr Kahn —Theoretically, it is possible. But you have to have the organism there in the first place, and the testing that they have done indicates that it is extremely rare.
CHAIR —I need to go back to Mr Deady. In the obligations of the SPS agreement, what provision is there for the allowing or the restriction of imports to disease-free areas or disease-free farms?
Mr Deady —To begin with, could I answer the part of the question about the least restricted. The issue that we still have with New Zealand is the very issue that we are talking about: here we have a requirement on Australia that is tougher on our salmon going into New Zealand—that is, the heads and gills have to be off—than we think is justified by the science. What we are pushing for is the ability to sell whole-headed fish with gills.
CHAIR —But that has been changed, as I understand it.
Mr Deady —It has not been changed, but they are moving towards it. I think there is an interest—the industry could comment more fully then we can—
CHAIR —I think it should have been done the other way around.
Mr Deady —The industry has an interest in selling full fish to New Zealand. That is the least restricted method that we think is justified by the science. On area freedom questions, the SPS agreement does provide for that. Particular areas of the country can be designated free of a particular disease of concern to another country. Therefore, exports from that part of a country can be certified as approved for export whereas in other areas where the disease status is different the quarantine bans might be in place. As you mentioned this morning, there are examples of that where Australia does benefit very clearly from that particular provision of the SPS agreement. Most recently, Tasmania's beef industry benefited in the last week in terms of hormone growth provisions. That is an element of the agreement that is valuable to us.
CHAIR —I understand that. Going back to this disease free thing, if we were to say, as in the question that Senator Calvert asked, that we would only take salmon from Canada that comes from disease-free farms, would that be seen as being trade restrictive?
Mr Deady —Again I will defer to my colleagues in a moment, but that comes down to the overall disease status and the full risk assessment that you would have to make on the basis of the disease status of the area and the risk of that disease establishing in Australia. The full range of issues would have to be considered in respect of that particular case. Unless it could be demonstrated scientifically that such a ban was justified, then you are in trouble in a WTO sense. The same rules that would have to be applied apply specifically to, say, a farm as they would generally to Canada.
CHAIR —If Tasmania or whoever sought to export to Canada, they are in a situation where they could say that they have disease-free status, because that happens to be a fact at this particular point in time. But when you put the reverse in place—which is a question which has been raised consistently with me and with, I am sure, the other members of the committee—why cannot we request exactly the same thing? We are not saying you cannot trade salmon with Australian but at least in terms of those particular things—because what we are importing is a product, as I understand it, and correct me if I am wrong—that has had no treatment. It is not as though, if it has come out of a disease area, it has been heat treated or has had something done to it which eliminates the disease out of the product—as you can do with chicken meat, for example.
In the case of salmon there is, as I understand it, no treatment there, so would it be a black mark against us as a country in terms of our trade if we said that there are areas and farms in this country which are disease free, and that is why we are not prepared to bring salmon in here when we have got a disease-free status. What is the reaction to that proposition?
Mr Gascoine —We are entitled to apply whatever restrictions are necessary to achieve our appropriate level of protection. We could request that we could limit trade to salmon only from disease-free farms—if there were some convenient way of establishing that farms were disease free. If the farms were disease free, presumably we would not be able to object to those farms supplying us with head-on, whole fish, eviscerated—as in the case of New Zealand fish which come to Australia, because of New Zealand's high health status. The question then would be if that would be the least trade restrictive way of meeting our requirements for our appropriate level of protection.
CHAIR —That is what I am trying to get at.
Mr Gascoine —Our answer to that question has been that the least trade restrictive way we can see of meeting our requirements is to limit the Canadians to sending us head-off, eviscerated, gill-out fish—either small ones or in consumer ready form. That is the least trade restrictive way we can think of to achieve our appropriate level of protection.
CHAIR —So that is the judgment you have come to after the scientific analysis?
Mr Gascoine —Yes.
Senator CALVERT —Even though those farms have evidence of furunculosis or IHN, but not ISA. I think you drew the line at that one, didn't you?
Mr Gascoine —That is right—on the basis that we think the risks of those diseases are managed in the least trade restrictive way by requiring the certification and the cutting off of the heads and gills and the evisceration and reduction to consumer-ready portions.
Senator CALVERT —But I think you did say that in the case of ISA it would be different.
Mr Gascoine —We have made an exception in the case of ISA.
Senator CALVERT —So what is the case with ISA?
Mr Gascoine —Dr Kahn will explain the detail on ISA.
Dr Kahn —The factors that we have taken into account there are, firstly, the very serious nature of the disease; the nature of the agent, in that it can be distributed in multiple tissues; and the fact that the knowledge on the disease is still involving, I think it is fair to say. It has been put to us that new information is continually coming to light and, as Mr Gascoine said, we have taken into account even some recent developments which shed light on the epidemiology of ISA. So we have taken those things into account in putting this additional measure on, which relates to the finding of infection or, in official terms, the suspection of infection in a farm.
Senator CALVERT —Can we just get that straight. What is the restriction on fish from Canada that we suspect could have ISA? Not allowed in?
Dr Kahn —No. We have said in the report that Atlantic salmon could not come from a farm which is infected with ISA or under official suspicion of infection with ISA.
Senator CALVERT —Just a while ago I thought I heard you say that wild-caught salmon could come in.
Dr Kahn —I am not sure I said that. But, if I did, certainly in respect of Atlantic salmon the trade is in farmed products, so we have looked specifically at farmed fish.
Senator CALVERT —We are allowing the import of wild-caught salmon, aren't we?
Dr Beers —It was wild Pacific salmon that Dr Khan was referring to.
Dr Kahn —Yes.
Dr Beers —From the Pacific Ocean.
Senator CALVERT —So the wild-caught fish that have been identified with ISA in New Brunswick are not Pacific salmon, they are Atlantic salmon?
Dr Beers —That is right.
Senator CALVERT —But are you not concerned by the fact that there has been some evidence that it is in eels and also in trout? If it is in wild salmon, trout and eels in several locations in Canada, does it not concern you that wild caught Pacific salmon might also have ISA?
Dr Kahn —I think the findings that you are referring to there relate to Scotland.
Senator CALVERT —You are probably right.
Dr Kahn —The certificate that we have in place covers Pacific salmon from Canada and Pacific salmon from New Zealand, so there is nothing warranted by way of a change to those conditions.
Senator CALVERT —We have a press release here from the Australian Atlantic Salmon Association, though, in New Brunswick. That is not Scotland, is it?
Dr Beers —I think that is in Maine in the USA.
Dr Kahn —Sorry, I was referring to the finding on eels and brown trout.
Senator CALVERT —They said that escapees and two wild fish collected also had ISA. That must be of concern, surely.
Dr Kahn —We certainly have those matters under review. But, as I say, the certificate arrangements that are in place at the moment only cover wild Pacific salmon from Canada. There is nothing to indicate that the risk factors have changed there in respect of any recent reports.
Senator CALVERT —Are there wild Atlantic salmon tearing around over there as well?
Dr Kahn —There are escapees.
Senator CALVERT —It says here that two wild fish collected for brood stock purposes had died from the disease.
CHAIR —Those two are not still tearing around—we know that—but there would be some others, I am sure.
Senator CALVERT —A person who I have admired as a fish expert said earlier today that Tasmanian salmon growers have attacked the integrity of AQIS and the rest of it, but I think we have all, in our own way, tried to do what we think is the best and raised questions. I have one final question, because it is getting late, but in the answers to the questions you took on notice you made a statement—and these are the sorts of things that worry me somewhat, and I'm sure you'll be able to answer it—that, without evidence from experimental infections, it cannot be said with any degree of certainty that the salmonids in Australia are any more or any less susceptible to any of the diseases than are stocks of those species anywhere else in the world. Is it not the fact that Dr Scott LaPatra of Clear Springs Foods in the USA has shown that rainbow trout derived from Tasmanian farm stocks are
very sensitive to IHN virus infection compared with other strains of fish? Have you heard that?
Dr Kahn —It is familiar to me, but it is not really at my fingertips at the moment. Fundamentally, the approach we have is that salmonids in Australia are at least as susceptible to diseases as any of the evidence would indicate for salmonids anywhere else. We have certainly taken full account of the advice of reviewers and any of the views that have been put forward on that.
Senator CALVERT —It says that IHN can cause outbreaks in salmonids resulting in 100 per cent mortality. That could mean that IHN in Australia could be just as serious as it is over there.
Dr Kahn —Yes.
CHAIR —I have a couple more questions I would like to address now. Obviously, we are not going to finish our questions today because some of us have to catch aeroplanes very shortly. I would like to address your belief that the least restricted way was to have pieces of fish—or fillets of fish, or whatever you want to call them—from everywhere, rather than whole fish from disease-free areas, and that was the least trade restricted way.
In terms of disease, which would be the highest risk? Would it be to allow pieces or fillets to come from right across the board, or whole fish to come from disease-free status areas or farms? I am asking you to make an assessment of what the likelihood is of the fish from those farms in such areas becoming inadvertently infected and it was not discovered or known? Which is the safest way from a quarantine point of view?
Mr Gascoine —If you could be absolutely sure that the farm was disease free, clearly that would be the safest possible product to import into Australia, yes. As I said in my earlier answer, there are some practical difficulties in satisfying yourself that a farm is absolutely disease free. Bearing those practical difficulties in mind, we have come to the conclusion that it is not an option to only allow the importation of fish from disease-free farms, so far as it is practicable to determine that they are disease free. I say again that, if we could determine that it was disease free, then the whole fish could come into the country without imposing any quarantine.
CHAIR —It is very easy to say off the tip of your tongue that it can come only from disease-free areas, but what is the risk in those areas that are theoretically disease free of the disease actually jumping over the fence? Seeds jump over the fence, but I am not sure about fish.
Senator CALVERT —They swim under them.
Mr Gascoine —It is generally true, not just in the case of fish but in everything we deal with, that there is always some room for doubt about whether the known pest and disease status of a particular stock or crop of anything in any region or any country is necessarily disease free. There is always some very small risk that the status may be different.
CHAIR —Can birds transport fish from one area to another, which could contaminate an area that was theoretically disease free?
Mr Gascoine —Fish can be transported in very many ways, by human intervention or by natural forces.
CHAIR —The reason I said birds is that that is a natural phenomenon. You can restrict humans from doing that sort of thing. Every one of my dams is now contaminated with cunacks by ducks which is wiping the marron out. I do not know whether that is a disease; it is to me. When you try to assess these things and balance the risk against it, at the end of the day which is the safest position for Australia short of a full ban?
Mr Gascoine —I think we have already said that we cannot think of a practical way of allowing whole fish or eviscerated head on fish in from Canada on the basis that the areas are disease free. So we have not allowed that to happen.
CHAIR —In the judgment of AQIS, that would be more risky than the decision?
Mr Gascoine —Yes, in the real world, as a practical matter, yes, it would be high risk.
CHAIR —We have got there, but it has taken a little while. I understand that. We are going to have to wind up. This will give us an opportunity to look at this and pose some questions to you. I am not sure when we can reconvene. I know Senator O'Brien and I have some further questions, and I am sure that Senator Calvert will also have more questions.
Senator CALVERT —I have.
CHAIR —I would like to thank you for your attendance here today, and we will be in touch in due course.
Committee adjourned at 3.54 p.m.