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Academic discusses a side letter attached to US Free Trade Agreement which may force Australia to take meat from countries affected by BSE.

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Wednesday, 5 October 2005



FRAN KELLY: Let’s talk beef now, and since the 1960s Australia’s tough policies on the importation of beef has allowed this country to stay free of BSE, or mad cow disease. This allows Australia to sell beef into lucrative markets like Japan, which don’t accept imports from countries with a history of BSE. But under the Free Trade Agreement we’ve just signed with the US, Australia could soon be forced to take meat from countries affected by the disease, including America.


Professor Linda Weiss is from the Government and International Relations Department at the University of Sydney. She says a relatively unknown sidenote attached to the Free Trade Agreement could be potentially disastrous to our beef industry. Linda Weiss joins us now. Linda, good morning.


LINDA WEISS: Good morning.


FRAN KELLY: Always read the fine print is the message. You have, and what did you find?


LINDA WEISS: Well, we found the BSE side letter which is a binding part of the Free Trade Agreement. And what does it do? It commits Australia to accept US quarantine standards in dealing with BSE-affected areas, areas affected by mad cow disease.


FRAN KELLY: And what are US quarantine standards?


LINDA WEISS: Those standards are, unfortunately, much inferior to our own. They are lower in the sense that they’re not accepted by at least 30 other countries who will not import beef from America at the present. And the purpose of this side letter is that it commits Australia to accept those standards in dealing with BSE-affected areas, and, as a consequence, it will force others to accept similar standards as well as the beef imports from areas affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy—it’s a mouthful, encephalopathy, BSE.


FRAN KELLY: It is a mouthful. Let’s try and pare this back a little bit. At the moment Australia has a policy of not importing beef when it comes from a country that has been impacted by mad cow disease, yes?


LINDA WEISS: That’s correct.


FRAN KELLY: And one of those countries includes the United States which has, in fairly recent times, been impacted by BSE, hasn’t it?


LINDA WEISS: Yes, it has. In 2003 the disease made its first appearance there. And when I asked what that letter is doing in the agreement, it’s there because the US wants to export more of its beef. It can’t do that at the moment unless it can get other countries to accept its standards, its regulations for dealing with BSE.


FRAN KELLY: So you’re saying it would require Australia to lower its importing standards. But Linda, is the point here that the US particularly wants to be able to import into our market or is it broader than that, because currently Australia has a direct line of entry into countries like Japan because we are so clear and our standards are so high on BSE? Once we lower those standards a country like Japan won’t necessarily favour Australia over America, will it?


LINDA WEISS: Well, that is indeed an important aspect, an important outcome of accepting this side letter because we have, currently, two big advantages under our current policy of following strict guidelines and not importing beef from countries like the US with BSE. And one is, of course, our BSE-free status means that Australians can safely eat beef without worrying about contracting the human variant of the disease.


Our BSE-free status also gives us a very powerful competitive advantage over other beef producers because it allows us to sell our beef into quite lucrative markets like Japan or Korea which don’t accept beef imports, as you point out, from countries with a history of BSE.


FRAN KELLY: Okay, so there are three issues that flow from this: there’s the health issue in Australia itself …


LINDA WEISS: That’s right.


FRAN KELLY: There’s the issue about, you know, would it open the floodgates to the Australian market with cheap US imports, but also it’s about losing markets where we have a competitive advantage over the US.


LINDA WEISS: Absolutely, that’s exactly the case.


FRAN KELLY: What’s been the reaction from the Australian beef industry so far?


LINDA WEISS: That is a very interesting question. It’s one of our national mysteries. The beef industry has been consistently odd. It’s one of those big, weird cases in all of the quarantine changes that are going on here. It’s very difficult for us to explain in relation to a whole lot of questions, the actions of the beef councils.


FRAN KELLY: Do you mean because they haven’t fought this or brought this to prominence, or …?


LINDA WEISS: They seem not to be making any fuss at all. They seemed happy with the Free Trade Agreement which gave them precious little in the first place. They haven’t been jumping up and down over the potential outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease from imports of beef from Brazil that occurred recently and they, on this issue, well, we have a reasonably relaxed and comfortable stance once again. So if I were a cattle producer in this country I would be asking some questions and wanting to get some answers about that.


FRAN KELLY: Okay, well, I’m sure they will. Linda, thank you very much for your time.


LINDA WEISS: Good, thank you.


FRAN KELLY: That’s Linda Weiss from the Government and International Relations Department at the University of Sydney.