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Monday, 9 February 2015
Page: 140

Dr STONE (Murray) (19:32): Australia's biosecurity system is of pivotal importance, as we have been hearing from speakers on both sides of the House. It is essential for human, plant and animal health, the environment and the economy. Extraordinarily until these biosecurity bills were introduced we were depending on the Quarantine Act 1908. That act has been amended over 50 times and there have been a number of reviews. The point that then follows is that the act has become clumsy, complex and unwieldy. There is a lot of repetition in it. It is like our tax acts. So this is the time. These new bills were introduced in 2014 and in 2015 we should have a world best biosecurity system supported by appropriate legislation.

I cannot stress how important this is for my electorate of Murray. My electorate in northern Victoria depends on agribusiness. All agriculture, particularly our exports, was worth $39.4 billion to the Australian economy in 2013-14. It was when the drought broke and our agricultural exports were once again able to flow through our ports that we were able to deal with the global financial crisis in the way we did. Our agribusiness exports are critical for this country's wellbeing. Of course a good farmer who is being reasonably and viably sustained economically is a good environmentalist.

Our environment is unique in Australia. We have lots of species that are not found anywhere else in the world. Numbers of them though are incredibly vulnerable to imported diseases and pests. You can imagine if rabies got into our native population, carried perhaps by the wild pig population. The member for Parkes mentioned that the wild pigs in Australia are indestructible and are in almost all of our damper environmental places. If they carried this disease, you can imagine how it would infect so many domestic animals and wildlife. There is foot and mouth, blue tongue and a whole range of other diseases that we have not experienced or seen in Australia. This is due perhaps to good luck but I would argue it is also due to past scrupulous and careful quarantine inspection services.

Our marine industry has suffered from invasive pest species like the crown-of-thorns starfish, which was probably brought in with ballast water and released into the marine environment. We are still tackling that pest starfish. It has destroyed a lot of our unique Great Barrier Reef and other parts of our marine environment. It could have been avoided perhaps if we had had better regulation around the discharge of ballast water or sediment out of our own domestic ships and international ships. We have to be so careful of our marine environment because we are an island nation and a lot of the last remaining wild fish species are found in our waters.

Then there are the human health issues. We have been fortunate in being able to avoid the worst of the avian flu and so far, thank goodness, being able to avoid some of the crippling diseases we have recently seen, like the Ebola virus in parts of Africa. We have to be scrupulous and careful at all times in our inspection regimes and our reasonable and sensible regulation.

I am particularly conscious of what damage can be done when our quarantine system fails us or we experience phytoterrorism, when someone deliberately alleges we have a biosecurity breach or a problem with an invasive species that will interfere with our trade. I refer to the 1997-98 apple and pear fire blight scare. Australia, fortunately, has never had the apple and pear fire blight disease that effects pome fruit in most of our developed trading nations, like the United States and New Zealand. This disease is also found in much of Europe in its pome fruit industry or its wild related plants. We felt quite proud of the fact that we had not got this pome fruit disease.

My area in Murray grows over 85 per cent of all pears in Australia and over 50 per cent of all apples. So we are particularly concerned about keeping out the trade in fresh apples from countries that have this disease well established—for example in the case of New Zealand, for over 100 years. You can imagine our concern when there was an allegation from a New Zealand scientist who, on a one-day holiday to the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, plucked a leaf or a twig from a cotoneaster hanging over a footpath. A cotoneaster is a host species to this disease. Without telling the Australian authorities, the scientist took the twig back in his pocket, or his luggage or his briefcase to New Zealand, where it was inspected and declared internationally that Australia had in fact not been truthful about its apple and pear fire blight circumstances, because this New Zealand scientist had proof in his pocket that we, like New Zealand and other countries, were suffering from this highly contagious pome fruit disease.

That announcement closed down the pome fruit industry in my electorate. No fruit could be taken to other states or exported. Over two million apple and pear trees had to be inspected by hand, one by one. There was an enormous investment by the Department of Agriculture and local fruit growers in inspecting and checking all of the other host species in the area, like the wild rose bushes. Of course, nothing was found, but the cost to the industry of that season's lost production was extraordinary. I would also add that the relationships between the two countries orchardists was shaken for a while given we had considered ourselves friends in relation to sharing in quarantine inspection standards and making sure that we were, as far as possible, soul mates in inspecting and keeping diseases out of our respective farmland. So I have experienced what can happen with a sudden announcement of a new, highly contagious disease—one that we have not before experienced in this country. It cost my growers millions of dollars in that one season.

But we have not only had this one bad experience in my area. Just last year we had an extraordinary circumstance where imported fruit, processed fruit, coming from China and South Africa was making my local SPC and Ardmona fruit processing manufacturer non-viable. There was so much of this product coming into Australia, made so cheap by the high Australian dollar and by the more lax antidumping regime—one that the new parliamentary secretary for the environment took a great deal of care in righting in his time as the parliamentary secretary to industry and manufacturing. We now have a better antidumping regime, but unfortunately this time last year the regime was not adequate to protect Australia's interest when it came to imported, dumped product, particularly fruit in this case.

It was not just the economic damage being done to Australian fruit growers and fruit manufacturers that was concerning. The National Measurement Institute of Australia analysed the contents of eight tins of canned peaches from China and they found that the samples contained levels of lead way above those allowed—in fact, double the lead allowed, according to the Australian and New Zealand food safety standards. That was in one sample. The second sample of the eight contained 10 per cent more lead than allowed. So one was double and one was 10 per cent more than the allowed levels.

These high levels of lead if ingested by humans create serious health problems in the immediate and long-term, including brain damage and damage to digestion, reproduction and nervous systems. Children, the elderly and the frail are particularly vulnerable. You can imagine the concern we had when we found that these cans of peaches were on shelves. They had got through our inspection systems—and that is where I am concerned. Australia does have a regime—and hopefully this new act will help us to be more protected—where, after inspections, five, without any problems found, means you have a very significantly reduced level of inspection of the food product. We have got to be scrupulous in the way we test incoming food products.

Our strictest food safety and hygienic conditions in Australia are not necessarily imposed elsewhere. So, while we can be perfectly secure almost universally when we consume Australian products grown and manufactured in Australia, we have to be extremely careful when it comes to imported foods from countries where they have serious issues with soil and water contamination or different manufacturing processes and different regimes of sanitary control. I refer to the terrible problems that China has where, for example, six infants died and thousands were hospitalised with kidney damage in 2008 from milk adulterated with an industrial chemical. That problem was known, unfortunately, it would seem, to some bureaucrats for some time before it was widely published so parents could stop using this particular infant formula.

It gets to be almost amusing when in 2014 fox meat was found substituted as donkey meat in numbers of Walmart packages that were exported from China. I do not think we should be culturally insensitive in saying that donkey meat is a bit interesting in terms of contamination. You can have very pure donkey meat, I am sure, but the problem was that fox meat had been substituted. The suggestion is that that was because the fur trade in China had become less valuable there was a lot of surplus fox for the market so they turned it into a donkey meat substitute, when fewer foxes were needed for ongoing breeding purposes.

Then of course we have the issue of the government inspectors in China finding that, in Shanghai Husi Food, expired and rotten meat was being used to make chicken McNuggets, beef patties and other products totalling more than 5,000 boxes. The official news agency, Xinhua, reported that 100 tonnes of meat products were seized and that police detained five people as part of their inquiry. That factory supplied McDonalds, KFC and other fast food restaurants in China and is a subsidiary of the OSI Group based in Aurora.

We have to make sure that our incredibly high standards of food security and biosecurity are also expected of those who import products into our country and that our inspection regimes are sufficient to keep the Australian vulnerable, frail and elderly safe. I am particularly concerned that while you can guard yourself against certain products from certain places where you are aware of incidents or problems in the past, if you are in a restaurant or a nursing home or a prison or the defence forces, where you do not know where the food has come from, then you are perhaps more vulnerable to people buying a cheaper imported food or beverage. That is why our inspection services are so critical, and I stress that is why the electorate of Murray is so dependent on good biosecurity services and a well-working piece of legislation. I strongly support this bill.

We are also at risk with things like the potential collapse of our beehives if we do not keep certain diseases from getting beyond where they are currently being detected in some parts of the country. We have to make sure that our native flora and fauna are protected in our unique environment. I commend all of those who have worked on it over many years. I also want to make sure we do not, through measures of austerity, slash too much of our human capital—for example, the number of inspectors for our inspection services. That would be a false economy because they are, after all, the front line for the protection of our country, our uniqueness, our human health, our animal welfare and certainly, I repeat, our unique environment. I commend the bill to the House.