|Title||Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Beef imports into Australia
|Committee Name||Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Back, Sen Chris
Sterle, Sen Glenn
Xenophon, Sen Nick
BIDDLE, Dr Bob, Assistant Secretary, Animal Health Policy Branch, Animal Division, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
BOUNDS, Ms Ann, Consumer Policy, Framework Unit, Competition and Consumer Division, Department of the Treasury
BUTT, Mr David, Deputy Secretary, Production Process Section, Food Standards Australia New Zealand
CRERAR, Dr Scott, Section Manager, Food Standards Australia New Zealand
CUPIT, Dr Andrew, Assistant Secretary, Animal Biosecurity Branch, Animal Division, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
FARRELL, Ms Tanya, Senior Adviser, Department of the Treasury
FIRMAN, Dr Jenny, Medical Adviser, Office of Health Protection, Department of Health and Ageing
GILL, Mr Anthony John, Senior Medical Adviser, Office of Science Evaluation, Therapeutic Goods Administration
HEALY, Dr Marion, Director, National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme
LIEHNE, Mr Peter, Assistant Secretary, Cargo and Shipping Branch, Border Compliance Division, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
McCUTCHEON, Mr Steve, Chief Executive Officer, Food Standards Australia New Zealand
MELLOR, Ms Rona, Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
MILWARD-BASON, Ms Lyndall, Manager, Customs Policy Section, Trade and International Branch, Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science Research and Tertiary Education
RAHMAN, Ms Azrianne, Analyst, Department of the Treasury
SCHIPP, Dr Mark, Australian Chief Veterinary Officer, Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
WOODLEY, Mr Peter, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Regulatory Policy and Governance Division, Department of Health and Ageing
CHAIR: Welcome. I remind senators that the Senate has resolved that an officer of the department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters on policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy. It does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Officers of the departments are also reminded that any claim that would be contrary to the public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis of the claim. We must be on about $20,000 an hour here at the moment with all the people in the room. Do any of you wish to make an opening statement.
Ms Mellor : I was going to but I actually think in the interests of time and with the bevy of public servants here that I would not.
CHAIR: Be a devil. Have a crack.
Ms Mellor : I think it is just important for the committee to understand why there are the range of officials here. I think from the perspective of DAFF and FSANZ we are very happy to be joined by others because we feel the range of terms of reference that you have spread right across a range of responsibilities within the public sector.
To assist the members, DAFF sits before you with responsibility for biosecurity risk assessment, for managing the imported food scheme and for assisting the food standards authority in relation to the in-country assessments for beef imports. We will assist you, to the extent that we can, across those things, but we will step backwards and forwards relying on othersâfor example, Senator Xenophon, I am aware you have labelling questions; they are not DAFF's, so we will assist you by stepping back and letting those that have them do that.
Mr McCutcheon : Chair, we will again focus on the FSANZ responsibilities, so ours are around the development of food regulatory measures or standards, the development of assessment policies in relation to food imported into Australiaâthat is the advice we provide to DAFFâand some other responsibilities we have around labelling of food and the coordination of food recalls in Australia.
CHAIR: We are very pleased you brought everyone along. Senator Back.
Senator BACK: Can I seek to deal with these two countries separately. If I can go to Croatia first. Can you tell us where we are with the process of application by Croatia to import beef into Australia at this time?
Mr McCutcheon : The Republic of Croatia lodged an application to have their BSE category assessed back in 2011, I think. FSANZ has completed that food safety assessment for BSE and assigned Croatia a category 2 classification under the revised BSE policy.
CHAIR: What does that mean?
Mr McCutcheon : I will let my colleague explain it in detail.
Dr Crerar : We have a category system through which we give countries categories. Essentially, if we give a country a category either 1 or 2, we consider those products coming from that country safe for human consumption. The difference between category 1 and 2 largely arises from the length of time they have had their BSE preventative systems in place. So, although Croatia has those in place and they are effective, they have not quite had them in place for a long enough period to enable them to have a category 1 classification. But the products are safe from both category 1 and category 2 countries.
Senator BACK: To arrive at that conclusion, did FSANZ officials visit Croatia and, if they did, without being disrespectful, can you tell me the level of skill of those officers to be able to assess and to come away and presumably give advice to you, Mr McCutcheon, on the decision that they meet your standards? I am not just asking whether they visited the country; I would be very keen to know the sorts of places they actually may have gone to and visited and what they may have relied upon to have you arrive, Dr Crerar, at that conclusion.
CHAIR: To clarify that further, you might care to give us the schedule of that process, where they went and who they were. You can take that on notice.
Dr Crerar : If I could take the detailed schedule on notice, we can certainly provide that to you. With respect to the training and the expertise that officers had in going to Croatia, FSANZ has had a history previously in assessing countries for BSE status and assessment. That was under the previous European system back in the early 2000s. I and several officers were trained from European Commission experts in the methodology at that time. I personally have a veterinary agricultural background. We have other people with agricultural backgrounds in FSANZ that accompany me on these visits, specifically Croatia, which we are referring to. With respect to the current assessment process, I and a number of officers received training from the OIE experts on the OIE methodology. In addition to that weâ
CHAIR: To clarify, the OIE is the mob that thought Brazil was all right. Go ahead.
Dr Crerar : In addition to that we have undertaken auditing experience in conjunction with the department of agriculture; quite a detailed course on the assessment of quality systems and their auditing. Prior to going to any countries several officers across FSANZ and DAFF gained experience in auditing Australian systems across a number of establishments, including abattoirs, feed mills, rendering facilities and the likeâanything that has BSE control measures important to controlling the prevention of BSE getting into cattle herds and the human food supply chain. With that suite of experience and additional training, as well as on-the-job practice in auditing facilities, we took that to countries. In addition, prior to going to Croatia we had looked at three other countries and gained experience of systems there.
We have that comparative experience, the training experience and the background in agricultural and veterinary systems.
CHAIR: Is that post-mortem or pre-mortem experience?
Dr Crerar : What do you mean?
CHAIR: When you went to Croatia was it a post-mortem exercise? How did you know what cattle they were killing, for a start? As you know, there are no live tests. Did you look only at the abattoirs forward or the abattoirs back, or did you look at both?
Dr Crerar : We looked at the whole beef production process right from the farm in terms of the systems, husbandry, reporting, identification, surveillance, veterinary oversightâ
CHAIR: What life-to-death trafficking certification did you see?
Dr Crerar : In which country?
CHAIR: Croatia. In other words, what is the home herd, how much of them are trafficked cattle and how much of them are not trafficked cattle?
Dr Crerar : What do you mean by trafficked cattle?
CHAIR: Someone else's cattle.
Dr Crerar : As in imports?
CHAIR: Across the borderâlike Paraguay and Uruguay. You were not smart enough to pick up the fact that a lot of trafficked cattle come from Paraguay and Uruguay into Brazil to be killed for a commercial purpose.
Senator STERLE: Chair, it is a very important issue, and I understand your passion for it, but to belittle the witnessesâone of whom is a doctor, and you and I do not have 'Dr' in front of our names. I think you should be a little bit more circumvent in the way you put your question. You do not have to keep abusing people.
Senator XENOPHON: Dr Crerar, you have used the OIE benchmark in relation to the BSE assessment, is that right?
Dr Crerar : That is the basis of our methodology. We go over and above that methodology in that we also consider slaughtering systems, meat processing systems including food recall and traceability once it gets into the food system. Importantly, the additional step we have is that we go to these countries and look at the effectiveness of the controls, how they implement those controls and how they ensure compliance. We want to be sure that they are actually doing what they say they are doing. The OIE does not do that.
Senator XENOPHON: Looking at the bottom of page 8 to the top of page 9 of the department's submission, it says, in the case of foot-and-mouth disease:
â¦ DAFF has concerns that the OIE FMD recognition system does not provide sufficient rigour to meet Australia's appropriate level of protection.
That is for a different disease, but do you share the concerns that the OIE BSE standards also lack that rigour?
Dr Crerar : I will hand that over to DAFF in a minute, but the important point I am trying to make is that we do not rely on the OIE categorisation. We do our assessments ourselves. That is a critical component of the Australian government's BSE policy. We undertake our own rigorous food safety risk assessment. We use the structure and framework of the OIE, with additional elements, but we do our own risk assessments.
CHAIR: How do you know if the cattle are Croatian?
Dr Crerar : Because Croatia hasâ
CHAIR: You do not know, mate.
Dr Crerar : We do know. They are traceable from birth right through to meat product.
CHAIR: What is the size of the herd?
Dr Crerar : Around 450,000 cattle. How many colleagues travelled with you? How long would you have spent in Croatia undertaking the onsite investigations of the various types you have explained to us; and in what yearâwas this 2012?
Dr Crerar : This was September 2012. There were three officers who carried out the verification visit to Croatia over a period of one week.
Senator BACK: You were one of them.
Dr Crerar : Yes, including me.
CHAIR: You will give us the names of the others.
Senator BACK: I am not being flippant here: was a one-week period sufficient for you to be able to look at all aspects of the chain and satisfy yourself on national livestock identification et cetera?
Dr Crerar : We believe so. It is a snapshot of their systems. You cannot see every abattoir. You cannot see every farm, but we demand that we see all the establishments across the production chain in several geographical locations. It is just a snapshot but it is looking at the whole system, as I said, right from farm to when the consumer puts beef into their mouth and when it is exported. We believe we can get a good picture of how they implement controls and we scrutinise it rigorously.
Senator BACK: And the one-week period was presumably at your discretion. If you had been of the view that you were not sufficiently satisfied, would you with or without authority of Mr McCutcheon have been able to keep your team on longer in Croatia?
Dr Crerar : I do not think that was a practical option. That has got lots of issues in terms of approvals and so on, but if we were not satisfied then we would come back and say that and maybe we would have to do further evaluations at a later time.
Senator BACK: I do not know much of the geography of the area, so I will have to trust what I looked up on Google this morning: Hungary is largely to the north, Slovenia to the west, Bosnia to the south and Serbia to the east of Croatia. Were you able to satisfy yourselves as to the integrity of the borders from those countries coming into Croatia, remembering that it is not all that many years ago that there severe problems between at least three of them? Did you have the opportunity at all, if you were concerned about movement leakage into Bosnia, to examine the standards in any of those other four countries bordering Bosnia?
Dr Crerar : We did not go into those other countries, Senator, but we went to two of the border posts with Hungary and Serbia. We wanted to satisfy ourselves about the controls at those borders with those countries being non-EU countries and not necessarily having the controls that the EU countries have. It is very rigorous in terms of what they require.
CHAIR: That is at the border control points, but not the boundaries. These farmsâon one side is one country and one side is the other, and they do traffic.
Dr Crerar : I cannot comment on that, Senator.
Senator BACK: Is that something you explored? In other countries we know: Mexico into the States; Canada down to the States; the famous seven-year-old Angus cow in 2009-10âwas this something you were able to examine? Was it an area of concern to you or one which you felt did not present a risk?
Dr Crerar : We could only assess the official controls. That is up to the country. It is legislation. It is controls.
CHAIR: That was the issue in Paraguay by Uruguayâwe have been through thatâand the same thing is over there. It is an illegal trade. You haven't even looked at them
Senator BACK: Do they have an animal identification system somewhat equivalent to our National Livestock Identification Scheme for cattle?
Dr Crerar : They have an exceptional animal identification and registration system. It has to comply with the EU. They are currently acceding to the EU. They have had that in place for several years and they have had to demonstrate that to the EU.
Senator BACK: How does EU one generally stack up against the Australian NLIS?
Dr Crerar : It is very rigorous. It is mandatory to have cattle identification registration, both individually and as a holding. You cannot move cattle without officially notifying that and producing certification around that. Cattle cannot be accepted into any establishment without proper documentation. There is a centralised database that contains all of that information that is updated in a very timely way. It is totally integrated; it is totally electronicâ
CHAIR: Are the tags manual or electronic?
Dr Crerar : They are electronic. It is mandatory in the EU now to have electronic ear tags.
CHAIR: So, if cattle are illegally traded over the border as they areâ
Dr Crerar : They will not get anywhere, Senator.
CHAIR: I have a thousand tags at home.
Dr Crerar : They cannot put tags on willy-nilly. They have to have approval for putting tags on and they have to request tags through an official process.
CHAIR: That is what we do.
Senator BACK: Along came the horse meat scenario, which was probably not a bad independent pressure test on systems. Are you able to tell us whether or not Croatia was a participant in or the subject of the horse meat scandal in Europe in the last couple of years.
Dr Crerar : I cannot comment on that, Senator.
Ms Mellor : Our intelligence and information is that the horse product that made its way into the supply chains was Romania based. Horses are produced not only for food in Romania. The tagging system would not have stopped this. It was a completely illegal activity.
Senator BACK: I am aware of the background to the Romanian exercise. Thank you, Ms Mellor, but it extended well beyond their borders. Are you saying we are not aware that Croatia had any tie up with the horse meat scandal?
Mr McCutcheon : To the best of our knowledge, Senator, that is correct.
Senator BACK: From your observations and information available to you, what is the age range at which animals are slaughtered in Croatian abattoirs?
Dr Crerar : They are largely the younger animals, Senator. They are probably on the whole 24 to 48 months old.
Senator BACK: Are tests done on central nervous system tissue?
Dr Crerar : According to the definitions of the OIE, it is mandatory for any cattle over 30 months of age, as well as for suspect animals or any sudden death animalsâthose thought to be of a higher risk of TSE-like diseases. It is very comprehensive testing.
Senator BACK: Is the actual testing undertaken by a central laboratory in Europe or does each country have its own laboratory?
Dr Crerar : They do, but they have to be accredited to undertake those tests and verified.
Senator BACK: I am not sure if it is within FSANZ or within DAFF, but I now want to go the whole concept of import risk analysis. Would FSANZ itself have undertaken an import risk analysis or does that rest with DAFF as part of the overall process?
Mr McCutcheon : It rests with DAFF.
Ms Mellor : There are twoâ
Senator BACK: Excuse me, Ms Mellor, but I want to avoid confusion and I suggest that if other senators have specific questions to FSANZ it might be wise to continue those questions. Otherwise we are going to start moving between the agencies. Chair, do you think that is the best way?
CHAIR: Yes. I have a question: I have 350 cows in Croatia, I do not take the bulls out and they calve all the year round. As each calf is born, do I have to apply for a tag?
Dr Crerar : Yes. As a farm you would apply for a number of tags in advance.
CHAIR: That is right, but you don't know where I put them.
Dr Crerar : No, but you have to apply those tags within a certain period of time and you have to register them.
CHAIR: That happens in Australia. Thousands of cattle were stolen in northern Australia because they simply put someone else's tags in their ears. And they can do that in Croatia.
Dr Crerar : This system is audited by the competent authority.
CHAIR: Let's go to the audit. I have 350 cows and I get 50 tags because I am in calving season. How do you know that I do not get the calves from next door or from over the border?
Dr Crerar : Are you talking about farms or countries?
CHAIR: I am talking about farms on the border. You guys are the guys who mucked upânot you personallyâwho did not understand that this stuff is bloody hard, if you are not in Ireland, to audit. In Paraguay and Uruguay, that stuff was just ginormousâit is still not under control. So if I want to traffic cattle out of some of the countries mentioned by Senator Back, not through the official entry point but across the paddock, I can. And you say on certification, 'Yeah, mate, we've got these tags.'
Dr Crerar : I think it is fair to say that in any country in the world, with all the best legislation and audit systems and the likeâ
CHAIR: I know what you are going to say, thank you, but there is no real way of knowing, when you certify Croatian cattle as okayâand good luck to you because it will only be a niche market, given the status and cost of Australian cattle; it would want to be Hyatt Hotel meat that comes in or some weirdo meatâyou absolutely cannot certify whose cattle they really are unless you have a stone wall.
Mr McCutcheon : What I am saying is that, based on all the information we have looked at prior to the visit of Dr Crerar and his delegation, and then the visit itself, we would have very high confidence that they have a good system that deals with those issues and underpins the certification process.
CHAIR: But you do not really know because you have not tested it.
Mr McCutcheon : If you want to go down to individual by individual certificate, that is the only way you could test that theory.
CHAIR: Because I am in the business, I know how it works and you have a bureaucratic snapshot of it. Who prepared the snapshot for youâwhere you went, what you saw and who you talked to?
Mr McCutcheon : The visit was arranged with the competent authority, with the governingâ
CHAIR: Yes: 'We'll let them go there and over there, and there.'
Mr McCutcheon : But that is no different fromâ
CHAIR: At least you did more than the OIE. They just said, 'Based on the desk top study, we give this a tick.'
Mr McCutcheon : But that is no different from when the EU inspect our systems hereâI think it is every year. It is done in consultation with the relevant government authorities here. It is a normal practice.
Senator STERLE: How many supply chains, abattoirs and farms did you visit, you and your team?
CHAIR: They are going to give us the itinerary on notice.
Dr Crerar : In general it is two to three establishments eachâI will have to follow that up with details for you, but it is several of each across the supply chain and, as I said, in different geographical locations.
Senator STERLE: Is it correct to say that any abattoir wants the FSANZ, that as you have approved the export of cooked meat any producer is able to export cook meat?
Mr McCutcheon : They are country assessments. Once we determine a categoryâin this case category 2âthat applies to meat exports from that country.
Senator STERLE: We heard this morning a figure from the veterinary association that, if there were a serious outbreak of, say, foot-and-mouth disease, over here it could cost the economy $16 billion. Do we know, if something came out of Croatia, what it would cost the Croatian economy if they exported meat that wasâ
Mr McCutcheon : No.
Senator STERLE: What I am trying to establish is: would the Croatians go, 'Whoops-a-daisy,' or would it be a massive concern to them?
Dr Crerar : All I would say is that it is an important industry for them and they take it seriously. It is one of their major industries so I would say it is very important to them in terms of the integrity of their industry.
Senator STERLE: What I am trying to establishâand the Chair has been onto thisâis that we know about human failure. We have just heard that we think Australia has the best system in the world but we have just heard that Senator Heffernan and any other producer can stockpile a heap of tags, but if you listen to one side of the argument, it is as though we are dealing with a country of ratbags who have no control on their borders. I am trying to establish how important it is to the Croatians to make sure thatâ
Dr Crerar : They are acceding to the European Union. They have had those measures and controls for several years. They are under international obligations to report diseasesâDAFF may want to comment on that. It is a serious business and they take it seriously.
Senator STERLE: Am I right to say that Croatia has not had a BSE infection?
Dr Crerar : That is right. There are no reported cases.
Senator STERLE: In their history?
Dr Crerar : Yes.
Senator STERLE: Do you know how long they have been recording?
Dr Crerar : They have had surveillance since the mid-1990s for BSE.
CHAIR: What proportion of the kill do they test?
Dr Crerar : I would have to take that question on notice.
Senator STERLE: The mid-1990s were not that long ago. Do we know whether it was BSE-free before that?
Dr Cupit : The epidemic has been running for a number of years. We know quite well that it has been tracked from the UK through various countries in Europe. Croatia would have been testing because they have been trying to accede to the EU for a number of years. They have been testing a lot of animals over 30 months, so they would have quite a large amount of data and therefore a fair bit of confidence.
Senator STERLE: So that information could be supplied to the committee on notice?
Dr Cupit : A lot of that information is publicly available and has been publicly available on all the statistics on testing in all the countries in Europe for quite a number of years, and also for countries outside of Europeâ
CHAIR: But you can supply it?
Dr Cupit : Yes.
Senator STERLE: That is probably easier than someone trying to go through the website.
CHAIR: Getting back to the mysterious visit to Croatiaâ
Senator STERLE: Hang on, I have not finished.
CHAIR: This is part of it.
Senator STERLE: I am nearly finished, but now you have thrown me off and I have forgotten what I was going to ask! I will remember.
CHAIR: I go back to the percentage. For you to certify that Croatia hasâ
Senator STERLE: I have remembered, Chair. How much tonnage are we talking about?
Dr Cupit : If we are talking about statistics on product coming in, we have had access on Croatia for a number of years. FSANZ have done a reassessment. Currently there are two active permits and we are talking about a very small tonnage. We can give you exact figures.
Ms Mellor : It is not fresh meat.
Senator STERLE: No, it is processed. I get that, but can you tell us how much we are talking about?
Dr Cupit : I do not have the individual tonnage for each country.
Senator STERLE: There are only two countries, aren't there?
Ms Mellor : No, there are no countries that import processed meat.
Senator STERLE: I understand, but for the purposes of this hearing today we are talking about Croatia and the Netherlands.
Dr Cupit : I will have to take it on notice, as far as the tonnage is concerned. We have a number of permits and they are quite limited.
CHAIR: Since the outbreak of BSE some years ago, in the meantime we did not close the border. Croatia, previously to this, could have brought in meat and were bringing in meat?
Dr Cupit : Yes.
CHAIR: Was that an oversight by us, that we should have shut the door?
Dr Cupit : Croatia has not been affected by BSE and the previous policy was that the countries that had not had cases of BSEâ
CHAIR: If you had not tested them, how would you know? Was it a protocol like some of the ones that have gone back to the 80s? When was the last protocol test for Croatia, for you to be able to say that?
Dr Cupit : Croatia has been on the approved list for quite a number of years and, in all that time, has been undergoing tests and other things to maintain that status and confidence.
CHAIR: You did not test that?
Dr Cupit : I am not sure what you mean by testing?
CHAIR: Do you just believe the desktop report from the OIE or someone? How do you know it is true if you do not test it? How do you know they are not pulling your leg?
Dr Cupit : That is probably a question for FSANZ, as far as the country approval processâ
CHAIR: I will go back to FSANZ.
Dr Crerar : Just very briefly, as I said in my opening remarks, we had assessed all countries that had been exporting beef products to us in the early 2000s, under the previous European system of methodology, and we assessed Croatia in 2003.
Senator XENOPHON: Croatia was caught up in the horse meat scandal, in the sense that some major Croatian countries complained that they had contaminated horse meat products. Croatia was not the cause of the problem, by any account, but is that something that you took into account after the event?
Mr McCutcheon : No, it was not. The report on Croatia had been completed well before the horsemeat scandal broke in Europe.
Senator XENOPHON: I just want to clarify what we were talking about. We were talking about like for like. There are media reports that you can find easily online that a major Croatian company, Ledo, which imported beef lasagne containing horsemeat into Slovenia accused another company, Tavola, of being responsible. But would the fact that Croatia was caught up in that horsemeat scandal create concerns for you that there could be supply chain issues that could be relevant in the context of BSE?
Mr McCutcheon : Not specifically for Croatia. You might be referring to a release that talked about 16 EU countries that were caught up in this scandal. I seem to recall that one a few months ago. There was an issue there around the systems in Europe in general, but we did not see the need to revisit the Croatian BSE assessment that we did.
Senator XENOPHON: But if there was a supply chain problem in Croatia in terms of them being caught up in this, does that not ring any alarm bells in the context of BSE?
Mr McCutcheon : I do not believe so.
Senator XENOPHON: You do not see any link between the two?
Mr McCutcheon : No, not at this point. We are talking about horsemeat being substituted for beef.
Senator XENOPHON: I know. But we are talking aboutâ
CHAIR: If you can get away with that, you can get away with anything.
Senator XENOPHON: I am saying that if there is a breakdown in the quality assurance chain with respect to contaminated products or products coming in from another country then is that not an issue in the context of BSE? You do not see a link between the two?
Mr McCutcheon : I think that the assessment that we did, both here as a desktop and then as we visited the country, was around the beef supply chain. It was not looking at other species and other potential substitution issues. It was around how they manage beef entering the food supply chain from animal of birth right through to it arriving at the consumer. We certainly did look at the broader issue of the integrity of the European supply chain, but there was not sufficient evidence to us to suggest that there was a problem with the determination that we had made in respect of Croatia's BSE assessment.
CHAIR: In the broader assessment, what was your view?
Mr McCutcheon : Our general view wasâand this is something that DAFF can comment on as wellâthat it certainly seemed to be driven by criminal elements more than a breakdown inâ
CHAIR: You are getting there.
Mr McCutcheon : But as I said earlier, criminals exist in all countries in the world.
CHAIR: Why would we bugger around in Australia, given our status here? I want to go back to you not knowing what percentage of dead cattle are tested. Why do you not know that? You can tick a report.
Mr McCutcheon : We do know.
Dr Crerar : We have the figures, Senator. I just could not quote them off the top of my head for you. We are happy to give those to you. And it is an area we actually assess. We want to know how many cattle they have tested.
CHAIR: So have a rough guess. One per cent? Two per cent? 10 per cent?
Dr Crerar : I think around five per cent.
CHAIR: And what age snapshot?
Dr Crerar : The point is they have to test across the age strata. Obviously, you do not test young animals.
CHAIR: How do you know? If you go down to Aldi down here, can you tell me whether it is cow meat or bullock meat or what?
Dr Crerar : Sorry, how do you know what?
CHAIR: How do you know the age of the meat in the store?
Dr Crerar : In the meat?
Senator STERLE: If you buy a cut of meat from Woolies or Coles.
CHAIR: How do you know what age it is?
Dr Crerar : It is about traceability and how you trace back.
CHAIR: At the abattoirâand I am very familiar with abattoirsâthere is a thing called 'budget meat'. You can get JBS budget meat, which is old, broken, fizzled bull and old cows, broken-mouth cows et cetera. But for the purposes of you certifying that they test four-tooth, six-tooth and eight-tooth cattleâand of course above that if you are eating them then you are hard up for something to eatâhow do you work out for the purposes of that book work you have got there that they are actually what they say they are?
Dr Crerar : Because of their identification and registration system. They have got those statistics in the system. It is tracked right through the slaughter process.
CHAIR: So, say, four- to six-tooth, what percentage do they test?
Mr McCutcheon : That is a very detailed question.
CHAIR: No, it is not. It is a very simple question.
Mr McCutcheon : It is, but it is not something that we could readily pluck a figureâ
CHAIR: But you have a list there.
Dr Crerar : We can give that to you on notice.
CHAIR: Read it out of the list. You have it in front of you.
Dr Crerar : It varies across the years.
CHAIR: I am talking four-tooth cattle and six-tooth cattle getting killed and tagged so that they allegedly know where they came fromâthey came from whoever put the tag in their ear. What percentage at the abattoir do they test?
Dr Crerar : In the range of a few per cent, probably.
CHAIR: Mate, that is not good enough. What does the chart say? You don't know? The chart doesn't tell you?
Mr McCutcheon : These testing arrangements for Croatia and every other country around the world are based on the OIE requirements.
CHAIR: Which is the vaguest bit of bureaucratic claptrapâ
Mr McCutcheon : They are science based methodologies.
CHAIR: Yes, but you have ticked this off. How do you satisfy yourselves about this? Your little delegation went over there for a week and took snapshots. How do you satisfy yourself that what they say is true? What does that chart say? Does the chart that you have in front of you there actually tell you?
Dr Crerar : Wellâ
Mr McCutcheon : Wellâ
CHAIR: No, I am asking you. Does it tell you? No, do not look over there. What does the chart say? Could you table that chart.
Dr Crerar : Yes.
CHAIR: Thank you.
Dr Biddle : I can make a comment that perhaps might assist your line of inquiry. The approach to surveillance that is internationally recognisedâand indeed the same approach that is followed in Australiaâ
CHAIR: I understand all that.
Dr Biddle : is statistically based. It assigns points to different age groups of animals that fit certain criteria. It is important for countries to maintain their risk categorisation for BSEâand Australia is a negligible risk countryâthat a certain point score is gained on an annual basis. We would expect that countries take an equivalent approach and are targeting the correct age groups and risk categories within their herds, including downer animals, and that they general have this equivalence.
CHAIR: I accept that. There are two things that I want to get through my thick head. You say that they base it on the tag, the profile for the test?
Dr Crerar : The tag?
Dr Crerar : Do you mean the identification?
CHAIR: The traceability tag.
Dr Crerar : Yes, essentially.
CHAIR: Do you know how the system works in Australia?
Dr Crerar : Yes.
CHAIR: How do you test from a tag a cow's age in Australia?
Dr Crerar : Teeth. This is verified by teeth as well in Croatia across the chain.
CHAIR: Good. Going back to the present application for the importation of meat from Croatia, what is it? Is it livers, kidneys, T-bones or grinding meat?
Dr Cupit : They are all heat treated or shelf stable products, such as beef in mushroom sauce. It also includes beef pate and luncheon meat. That material is sourced not just from Croatia. There can even be Australian or New Zealand product in there as well.
CHAIR: So it is a mishmash.
Dr Cupit : From approved countries.
CHAIR: In my office I still have a little tub of meat from the US, which is allegedly cooked. It says on the thing, 'From the US and other sources' or whatever. It could be from anywhere. Is this the same sort of thing?
Ms Mellor : That product we did trace for you, as I recall, and it was Australian beef.
CHAIR: I remember.
Senator BACK: I thought that we were going to go to the IRA. We have to go back to this horse meat thing again, don't we? We had a Croatian company, Ledo, importing beef into Slovenia. The product was manufactured by a company in Luxembourg. There is evidence of Swiss involvement. The investigators found that horses used were bred in conditions that did not meet any of the norms in place in Switzerland or in the European Union. Croatia is tied up in this business, isn't it?
Dr Cupit : One of a number of European countries, yes.
CHAIR: You said that they were not.
Dr Schipp : Croatia is one of a number of countries that we have written to in this regard. We have received responses from those countries.
CHAIR: You said that they were not.
Senator BACK: Can you explain to me what the nature of the correspondence to them was and what was the basis of the response? What was the specific concern that caused you to write to them?
Dr Schipp : Our concern was that some of those countries and companies named were also exporting products to Australia, so we wrote to them seeking assurances around that. We identified that none of the companies named there were involved in exporting product to Australia, and we received assurances on the state of the investigations being undertaken in the European Union.
Senator BACK: It is obvious why we are most interested in the Croatian side. Was it Croatian authorities that actually discovered the horse meat DNA and made this publically known into the relevant EU processes, or was it others who discovered it and then caused the Croatians to put their hand up and say, yes, we have discovered it?
Dr Schipp : As you know, it was first discovered in the UK, and then subsequent investigations implicated a range of countries, as you have outlined.
CHAIR: They did not volunteer it.
Senator BACK: That is what I want to understand. We are trying to establish the integrity of, in this case, Croatia and obviously Holland was tied up in the horse meat thing too. We are trying to establish the integrity of these countries and we are trying to establish the integrity of officers who communicated with the FSANZ team. That is what this is all about. As you have quite rightly said, Dr Crerar, you have no option but to rely on the transparency and the integrity of those officials.
Dr Schipp : As has already been pointed out, there are criminals in every country, and Australia had the largest meat substitution scandal of all time.
Senator BACK: Yes, that is correct.
Dr Schipp : Other countries continue to import product from Australia based on the assurances that we provided.
CHAIR: But we do not have their diseases; we are an island.
Ms Mellor : In the horse meat substitution issue, on the imported food scheme what we were interested in was to make sure very clearly that nothing was coming from the countries or the companies that were affected as the information came through. The food production chain in Europe is quite large, as it is here. The number of companies involved in different parts of processing is quite large. The regulatory systems over there are different from what they are here. We get our knowledge of them by doing inspection tours. We go and have a look at the meat production system in a country when we are looking at import permits or import requests or understanding the food import side. We have to go and have a look; we have to understand it. From our perspective the risks to Australia from imported food being substituted were very, very low, in fact, probably zero. The company that was most implicated was Findus through the Ireland-UK system. We do not take imports through that company from the countries that were affected as it unrolled. Regarding your question about Croatia, I do not know specifically what the role of those companies are, whether they were registered in Croatia or what part of the production they were doing. From the DAFF perspective there was no additional concern as those countries came up.
Senator BACK: Thank you for that explanation; I accept it. Just going backâand perhaps you could correct me if I am wrong, Dr Schippâwhen we did have the meat substitution in Australia with kangaroo and horse meat, was it not the case that Australia was the first to pick that up and came out publically and said so, or was it other countries?
Ms Mellor : Bob was here.
Senator BACK: Dr Biddle, you may well be able to advise us because, again, it goes to the question of integrity, doesn't it?
Dr Biddle : It does indeed. Regrettably, Senator, at the time, way back when that was detected, it was an import meat inspector in the US that first raised suspicions and had tests conducted. Then, of course, we acted on that intelligence in this country fairly rigorously.
Senator BACK: So, the first that was known was when a US inspector inspected that meat. Before we go onto the import risk analysis side, and I think there are trade officials here, I would like to ask a question. This was the basis, Senator Heffernan, as you remember, of the BSE hearings we had two or three years ago.
I want to know the extent to which, if at all, pressure from trade has driven any of your advice, decision-making or advice to DAFF in relation to the importation of this processed meat from Croatia and, indeed, Holland. Let us be brutally honest, the exercise with America, Canada and Japan originally came from trade, we know that. It did not come from agriculture, it came from trade. Is this another circumstance like that, where it has been trade-driven, and Australia looks at this whole exercise from that perspective?
Mr McCutcheon : Senator, I might just answer that from the FSANZ point of view. When the change in policy was announced, countries were advised that if they wanted to trade beef with Australia, either as a country that at that time was not permitted access because they had had a previous case of BSE, or already had existing access, they would need to lodge applications. I think something like 14 countries made applications. The vast majority of those were countries that already had access to Australia under the old policy and there was a requirement on them to do so. Only two countries did not have accessâthe US and the Netherlandsâand they lodged applications. Once those applications were lodged, we basically dealt with those as they came in. The first application we got was from New Zealandâthey were very quick off the starting blockâand that was the first one to be assessed.
The next lot of countries that came in were mainly European countries so we have been assessing those in the first sort of tranche of countries. As you know, we have done Croatia and Netherlands and we are nearly finalised up to the Latvian and Lithuanian reports. So there was nothing to do with trade; they were both simply just applications that were lodged and we have dealt with them. The US one, I might add, was put on hold. It was one of the earlier ones, but the US put that on hold so we did not do a lot of work on that for about eighteen months. So there is no trade pressureâor whatever word you want to useâwe have just basically assessed these in accordance with the new policy and methodically worked our way through them.
CHAIR : Are you saying there was no trade pressure from the United States?
Mr McCutcheon : Well, not for FSANZ.
CHAIR : That's right, put the wall up!
Mr McCutcheon : No. Our role is very specific in this. A country lodges an applicationâ
CHAIR : I realise that. You have got a safe compartment, but you are not qualified to sayâ
Mr McCutcheon : I am just telling you the facts from the FSANZ point of view.
CHAIR : We are going to switch over to DAFF.
Ms Mellor : I think you know we have approaches from other governments to have assessments done of buyer security risks for the purposes of imports and we prioritise those. Certainly at the request of Minister Burke, the previous minister for agriculture, we undertook to do risk assessments.
CHAIR : And he told me that it was trade that was leaning on him through Crean.
Ms Mellor : I can only say what is in my knowledge, Senator,
CHAIR : Limited knowledge.
Ms Mellor : In fact, Minister Burke at the time published his request to the department to undertake an IRA on beef. It was not specific to countries. The request was to undertake an IRA on beef and that was because it was his view that the beef policy was old. We commenced an IRA on beef. For disease profile purposes it was easier for us to do that around specific countries, because the disease profiles could be based on countries. We commenced three IRAs on beef: one from the US, one from Japan and one from Canada. We stopped the clock on all three for different reasons. The consistent reason is that the country involved was unable to provide sufficient information for us to continue.
CHAIR: When you started the clock, was that before or after the government announced we were going to let it come in?
Ms Mellor : I believe the announcement for this import policy around BSE was in late 2009 and the policy commenced in March 2012. We were asked by Minister Bourkeâ
CHAIR: We actually had to interveneâ
Ms Mellor : in March 2010.
CHAIR: because they were going to agree to it until we intervened, based on the old IRAâtrue?
Ms Mellor : Senator, all I know was that we were asked by Minister Burke in March 2010 to conduct an IRA on beef. The department chose to do it according to countries, because of disease risk profiles.
CHAIR: So for the 14 countries you mentioned behind the FSANZ wall, was that fresh meat or just meat?
Ms Mellor : It was a food safety assessment so it covers all meat and not just fresh.
CHAIR: To get back to Senator Back's important question on trade pressure, before all that happenedâwhich is why I was able to interrupt the press conference where they were announcing we were going to do itâI actually met with the agricultural committee of the Canadian parliament and went through a whole lot of rigmarole with them. They were determined to put enough trade pressure on us to let the meat in. As you would be aware, the US application really was not to send meat. It is going to have to be stolen meat to be commercially imported into Australia as our meat is so bloody cheap. They said, 'We think we can beat you.' This is their agricultural committee in their parliament.
Senator STERLE: With the greatest respect, the officers in front of us have no idea what meetings you have had.
CHAIR: But this is about whether there was trade pressure. The US application was not about them particularly wanting to let meat in here.
Senator STERLE: But you cannot honestly expect the officers to sit there and make comment on what you are saying about private meetings you have had.
CHAIR: Well, I am owning up. Senator Back's question was: was there trade pressure? This is just evidence of the trade pressure. I am demonstrating what I know. I am not asking them to reflect on it.
Senator STERLE: Well, go do a door stop or something.
CHAIR: No, that is not the way it works.
Ms Mellor : This is my answer. There is no movement on the IRAs for the US, Canada or Japan. None of the governments of those countries have satisfied our information requests to date. The only countries that Australia imports fresh beef from are New Zealand and Vanuatu.
Senator BACK: I go on to the question of import risk analyses. We know what the FSANZ on the ground process was. Can I ask the same questions from the DAFF officials' point of view? Did DAFF officials visit these countries? We might as well extend it to Holland because we are going to run out of time. Did officials visit those countries? Did officials go through those on-site processes? Was it in concert with FSANZ or at a different time? If officials did go through that process of on-site inspections, can you tell me what were the four or five major criteria that would inform your analysis from a risk point of view in Croatia or Holland?
Ms Mellor : DAFF does assist FSANZ in the in-country assessments, including in visiting the countries.
CHAIR: A point of clarification before you start: was the Netherlands application for calf meat or mature meat?
Dr Cupit : The application from the Netherlands was interested in both processed beef and also fresh veal. But the FSANZ process basically covers all meat as far as the processed beef and veal, but the second process is for fresh products because of the potential biosecurity concerns that we would then conduct a risk assessment and we have not commenced that work. However, with FSANZ we also partner them with looking at the desk assessment and reviewing that as well. We did have one officer who attended in the Netherlands but was not part of the total inspection process plus we still reviewed the assessment.
Senator BACK: So you actually have not commenced an IRA for the two countries yet.
Dr Cupit : No, we have not commenced that. And for Croatia, they have not actually asked or requested access for fresh beef from the biosecurity point of view. We, however, have still reviewed the assessment that FSANZ have undertaken. It is important to say that we have also audited the Netherlands on other products. We have a fair bit of confidence and quite a history of auditing and checking products from a range of European countries. It is not just in relation to that; we have quite extensive knowledge about the assessment processes in general for Europe,.
CHAIR: Are the Netherlands outside the meat mafia loop?
Dr Cupit : I do not think I will comment on 'meat mafia', Senator.
CHAIR: The criminal elements in the meat industryâput it that way. If you cannot answer it, I am sure Ms Mellor will.
Dr Schipp : I can provide some comments. We have got additional detail from the department in response to the earlier questions and the assurances that we sought. In the Netherlands, two companies are approved to export to Australia. In Croatia there are two establishments that are approved to export to Australia. We received assurances and confirmation that no horse meat is processed or dealt with in either or those establishments. In terms of volume, so far this financial year the Netherlands has exported 140 tonnes and Croatia 70 tonnes of highly processed products to Australia this financial year.
Senator BACK: In the case of Netherlands, to be clear again, with fresh veal, they have not yet got approval toâ
Ms Mellor : We have not done a risk assessment.
Senator BACK: Dr Cupit, when you say you have not done an import risk analysis, what is it that you have not done one on? If two suppliers from each of Croatia and the Netherlands are already importing processed beef into Australia, what component of an IRA haven't you done? Is it just the fresh meat from Holland?
Dr Cupit : To explain it a bit further, when it comes to fresh beef we look at the aspects of what would be the diseases of concern in fresh beef itself; that is everything from tuberculosis, brucellosisâthose sorts of diseasesâand also ones that would affect human health. We also work with the department of health on those assessments. They look at the food safety aspects.
As far as the assessments for those other products, we still do an assessment from a permit basis. For a company that applies for a permit through DAFF, we still look at the process of whether it can meet our conditions from the point of view of the heat processing. We verify that information to make sure it is a shelf-stable product that would cover all the other risks for biosecurity in that particular product. Then we refer to FSANZ on the aspects of the BSE part to make sure that they are an approved country from a BSE country risk point of view. Those two parts are married together when we assess a permit.
CHAIR: So, for the purpose of the exercise, Croatia has been cleared by FSANZ before or after they exported 140 tonnes?
Mr McCutcheon : The BSE assessment we did was completed towards the end of last year, but I cannot answer the questionâ
Dr Cupit : And as FSANZ said previously, it was done in 2003 as well. So it has had two assessment processes. Yes, it was approved well and truly before those permits wereâ
CHAIR: When was the serious discoverable incident of BSE that spread into Europe? What year was that?
Dr Cupit : Do you mean the origin?
CHAIR: You say you tested in 2002. We have been bringing in Croatian meat. We do not have to have an IRA but you have to be informed on it. Have you given it a tick or not?
Mr McCutcheon : With Croatia, yes.
CHAIR: The first tick you gave was in 2002?
Mr McCutcheon : That is correct, because there had not been anyâ
CHAIR: Then there was a BSE event in Europe.
Dr Crerar : The assessment that we finalised for Croatia in 2003 was in response to the European issues, so we wanted to assess countries.
CHAIR: So it was after that.
Senator BACK: How long has Croatia been importing processed meat into Australiaâpre 2003?
Ms Mellor : We would have to have a look at the permits and get back to you on notice.
CHAIR: Could you also get back to us with the product that they bring in? Is it in plastic, in tinsâ
Ms Mellor : I think we could give you a sense of that now. It is highly processed; it is meals and tinned meat, isn't it?
Dr Cupit : They would be a combination of tinned and the shelf stables they use, which are obviously heat-resistant or plastic containers; that is the general way. There are a range of them that you would see every day on supermarket shelves.
CHAIR: They have got to be cooked to a certain standard, Mr McCutcheon?
Mr McCutcheon : Again, that is forâ
Dr Cupit : Yes, a certain timed temperatureâ
Mr McCutcheon : Not from a BSE point of view.
CHAIR: No, because obviously cooking it is not going to cure it.
Dr Cupit : From a biosecurity point of view we look at certain time temperature, but it has to reach a certain lethality, a certain log reduction, without going into too technical terms. It has to basically be able to inactivate all those other pathogens that we are concerned about.
CHAIR: Dr Schipp, as someone mentioned earlier, they recognised the meat mafia. I have had to deal with the mafia in the Victorian markets, when the first load of lettuce went from Hay to the markets and they rotted in the sun because they had not organised it with the mafia. Is the Netherlands in or outside the known criminal elements of the meat trade in Europe?
Dr Schipp : I cannot comment on that.
CHAIR: The person who made the commentâwas it Ms Mellor?
Ms Mellor : I do not know that any of us made a comment. I think we have all resisted being drawn into speculating on who is in what.
CHAIR: Maybe it was the previous witnesses.
Dr Schipp : We are continuing to be in correspondence with our counterparts in Europe and to receive updates on the investigation.
CHAIR: To have to be doing that, it recognises there is a mafia?
Dr Schipp : That there is a recognised organised criminal element; I would not call it mafia.
CHAIR: Well, all right. A recognised criminal element. Is the Netherlands part of that?
Dr Schipp : I cannot comment.
CHAIR: For the sensitivity diplomatically or because you do not know?
Dr Schipp : Because the details of the investigation have not been completed.
CHAIR: So this committee when considering this matter has to take as a vague 'don't ask, don't tell' notion of what criminal influences might be in the process.
Senator BACK: I want to go to the treatment of the meat. If I can quote evidence from the Australian Veterinary Association at page 3:
The BSE agent is not usually inactivated by the heat of manufacture of canned and other processed products. This must be taken into account in import risk analyses.
First of all, do you concur with that statement? And, if you concur with it, if not heat then what? And where does that fit in terms of a proportion or percentage of risk in an import risk analysis?
Dr Cupit : That is correct. What Dr Doyle said was that the heat process, as far as canning is concerned, does not inactivate prions. It certainly has an effect but does not completely inactive them. And that is why we have a comprehensive process for assessing the country and looking at the other controls, for example, removing specified risk materials, the age of the animals, the inspection and certification processes those animals undergo. That is why you take into account those other aspects to control a disease like BSE. BSE has to be heat-treated quite considerably and Dr Doyle mentioned the process that they use for rendered product, which is 133Â°C, 3 bar pressure et cetera. That process will inactivate, plus there are other means of inactivating with pH and other controls that they have found out in recent times.
Senator BACK: You heard the evidence of Professor Collins when we were asking him about the condition in humansâvariant or sporadic CJDâand I am now not confining our discussion to Croatian or Dutch or, for that matter, Australian meatâdo we have tests that can be conducted on meat, here in Australia, including for that matter imported processed meat, that can actually identify the presence of the BSE prion?
Dr Biddle : The tests that we routinely utilise in Australia are directed at nervous tissues, and that is part of the established, internationally recognised, surveillance methodology.
There is no routinely available deployable test for looking at extremely low levels of prions that might be in nervous system or whatever that are practical to apply. Even if there were a test the sampling strategy you would have to employ would just be totally destructive of a consignment. It makes no sense whatsoever. What is important is, as other officers have mentioned, is that there are systems of controls that systematically assess the level of risk to assure that, overall, the population of slaughter animals is acceptably low, and it can be tightened up by removing specific risk materials whose level of infectivity have been carefully assessed in bioassays in countries with the disease. It is well established that big cuts in these bioassay systems do not show up infected. They do not transmit the disease as these specific risk materials can, to hypersensitive mouse models, for example. It is just not seen. There is a high level of international confidence about the removal of SRM materials, specific risk materials, that add significantly to the safety of the product and our knowledge about the safety of that product.
Senator BACK: So it causes me to ask the questions then: Dr Collins in Humans spoke of the reliability of a tonsil biopsy to detect variant CJD. He also spoke of MRI scanning which provides an 80 per cent specificity. What if a veterinarian in Australia saw the clinical signs that might point he or she to BSE as being one of a differential diagnosis? What, if any, capacity do we have in Australia in our laboratories, or anywhere else, to actually test nerve tissue or whatever to confirm or be able to excuse BSE as a likely diagnosis?
Dr Biddle : We have an extensive array of tests that provide a high degree of certainty of making a diagnosis. Those tests range from ELISA based test that have been validated in Europe. We have the ability to do immunohistology to demonstrate, in situ in sections of brain, the presence of the prion microscopically. We have the ability to work with very sensitive mouse models to establish infectivity. We have especially trained expertise in examining neuropathology. That all leads to a high degree of confidence. We are at world standard.
Dr Cupit : Can I add to that? An example is that we have detected the atypical scrapie, therefore, because of the array of tests we have and the ability in the systems we have had in place for a number of years, that has demonstrated that we have the ability to detect these if they were here.
Dr Schipp : Our analytical capability has been verified through sending those same samples to internationally recognised laboratories.
Senator BACK: My final question is back to FSANZ and also DAFF. I guess it goes to the question of a snapshot in a one-week period. I am not for a moment decrying the validity of that process. Our overall confidence comes from there being in place an ongoing level of communication, confidence, et cetera. In our markets I have no doubt at all that the US would say the same about the import of beef from Australia. I do not know whether the US officials are here all the time, or come often, or come without prior notice, et cetera. Can you give the committee any level of comfort that you are in contact with officials from these countries, that you do random inspections yourself, ever, that you turn up to facilities or have representatives from elsewhere do the same? What is the level of ongoing communication and ongoing surveillance that would give this community confidence in knowing that, other than a one-off event, we are across the issues in terms of biosecurity and in terms of safety?
Mr McCutcheon : I will respond to a couple of points to that question. Firstly, under the policy there is a requirement for each country once it is assessed and is given a category 1 or 2 ranking, to provide FSANZ with a report every four months on their system, basically an update report similar to the one that they would provide OIE as part of the reporting arrangements to sustain their categorisation.
CHAIR: Can you table last oneâ
Mr McCutcheon : That is the first thing. The second thing is that the inspections are not something that FSANZ has done in the past. I think the only time that we have ever done inspections was some years ago when we approved some raw-milk cheeses coming out of France and Switzerland, where we went along with the then AQIS officers to do that work. It is not something that is part of our normal day-to-day work.
That said, when the policy was approved, the government provided us with money to do in-country inspections to verify the assessments that we were doing. To date, for every country that we have assessed we have done an in-country inspection. But at this stage there would not be plans to do further inspections of those countries that have been assessed. I think the only exception would be if suddenly a problem emerged where there was an issue around their systems and the like, and we would certainly be talking with our colleagues in DAFF, who are responsible for the certification arrangements, to decide how best to deal with that, and it will involve a second round of inspections.
Dr Schipp : I would like to add to that if I could. I would not like senators to go away with the impression that a physical visit is the only element in undertaking that risk analysis. By far most of the evidence is provided in documentary form and the visit is used to verify that or to go into areas that appear weak in the documentation. So you can use the visit in a targeted way to verify or to expand upon concerns that might come through in the documentation.
As you say, Australia is equally subject to these visits. We have the US, the EU and other countries here on an annual basis conducting very similar audits of us either for a week or two weeks at a time, going through in a very thorough way our controls both in terms of biosecurity and food safety.
Finally, as a quads group, that is the group of countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, we are looking at a standardised approach and we share our methodology with those countries to say, 'This is the approach that we take when we conduct overseas assessments. What approach do you take?' We meet annually to discuss these issues of concern. So there is that ongoing sharing of intelligence and methodology.
CHAIR: For purposes of clarification, you will on notice give us the itinerary of your visit and the people that were on the visit? Is there subsequently an audit report, a follow-up report that you just talked about, to get once a year?
Mr McCutcheon : Yes, there is, but the report we have received to date is from New Zealand, because they were the first country to be assessed. It is done after 12 months.
CHAIR: So when is the 12 months up with Croatia?
Dr Crerar : January next year.
CHAIR: Just for the record, could we see that when it arrives and, if God has not taken me away, I will have a look at it. The product that is coming into Australia now from Croatiaâthe packaged tuckerâwhat is the protocol for you to be satisfied that it has been cooked enough?
Dr Cupit : For each import permit they are assessed every two years and also if they are ongoing. But as part of the assessment process we ask for information from the importer as they make an application, and then it is assessed.
CHAIR: All right. So you have got a live quota import now?
Dr Cupit : Yes, there is product coming in.
CHAIR: Could you give us that report on noticeâthat it satisfied you of the heat treatment of that meat in those products?
Dr Cupit : Some of that information would be commercial in confidenceâ
CHAIR: Oh, don't give us that!
Ms Mellor : We will just have a look for what we can get you and see how we can satisfy your questions.
CHAIR: I would be interested to know how you, sitting at the end of the table down here in Canberra, can satisfy yourself that something allegedly was cooked to a certainâ
Dr Cupit : The other evidence is that itâ
CHAIR: Should still be edibleâ
Dr Cupit : does not become spoiled on arrivalâ
CHAIR: Yeah, butâmateâlet's just see what the paper trail says and see how it stands up to human error.
Senator STERLE: You talked about a low level of risk, and we have heard some figures this morning from the Australian Veterinary Association. But we will clarify it: what is the low level of risk?
Ms Mellor : In relation to?
Senator STERLE: Contaminated meat. The meat coming from the Netherlands that could change to CJD.
Ms Mellor : That is the assessmentâ
Mr McCutcheon : Assessment categories 1 and 2 assess the risk as negligible.
CHAIR: Is that based on the age of theâ
Mr McCutcheon : No, that is the OIE terminologyâ
Senator STERLE: Okay, so it is negligible. But just for people out there, so there is no scare campaignâif you listen to some of the question you might think that we are all going to contract something terrible if we eat this stuff; I will not be eating it, but anywayâ
Ms Mellor : I will ask theâ
Senator STERLE: Mainly because I would rather eat the Australian meat.
Ms Mellor : I will try to do it in plain English and then I will ask the veterinary cohort here.
Senator STERLE: If you could please.
Ms Mellor : Australia is ranked as negligible as well, and so there are a number of factors that go into it: the age of the herd, any reporting of cases, the controls in place and the traceability. It is a range of factorsâjust as Australia has been assessedâthat says that another country has all of those things in place that would lead to the negligible risk. Did you want to add anything, or did I do all right in plain English?
Dr Cupit : Senator, I think that in the original hearings we had a few years ago, Professor Matthewsâand I think Dr Doyle was referring to the Matthews reportâwas quoting statistics as far as the probability of one in so many million million chances.
Senator STERLE: I understand. But, you see, if there are people hooked in today and listening they are not going to go back, or did not hear about, three or four years ago. I was here and cannot remember. It is helpful if you actually put a figure on it.
Dr Cupit : I have the report right in front of me here; I would have to find the page where he referred to the exact figure. But I remember it being in the millions.
Senator STERLE: Low millions? High millions?
Ms Mellor : How about I get you a Department of Health and Ageing official so that they earn their keep?
Senator STERLE: That sounds fantastic. The sooner we get the information the sooner we can all run away!
CHAIR: How are you, Dr Firman? Are you a doctor of dust or of medicine?
Dr Firman : Medicine.
CHAIR: Have you been sitting back there, bored, all morning. I am pleased to see you come to the front table.
Dr Firman : No, I have not been bored at all. It has been a very interesting discussion.
If we look at the number of new variant CJD transmissions each year, the risk of CJD in Australia from beef imports each year has been estimated at 0.00042; and the chance of a single variant CJD case in the next 50 years is estimated to be 0.002.
CHAIR: And that is based on our present imports?
Dr Firman : This was from Professor Matthews's report from 2009.
Senator STERLE: Okay.
CHAIR: But that is based on the meat we import?
Dr Firman : That was based on the meat we import.
CHAIR: And did we import any meatâmuch? We imported no fresh meat?
Dr Firman : I would have to refer to my DAFF colleaguesâ
Dr Biddle : My recollection was that it included before we suspended imports of beef from the United Kingdom, which was the high-risk country. That assumption is within that assessmentâ
CHAIR: So before that: when was it based on what yearâ
Dr Firman : This was Professor Matthews's estimationâ
CHAIR: Yes, and what year was that?
Dr Firman : 2009. This report was written in September 2009.
Senator STERLE: So when Ms Mellor says 'minimal' it is very, very minimal. Okay, that is great. Are there any other food products that have a low-level risk like that that we have been importing for years? Just so we do not get everyone out there and absolutely frighten the living daylights out of them. Does anyone know? Any comparable products?
Dr Schipp : I have seen a similar sort of ranking of comparable risk, but that is not something that we have immediately to hand.
Senator STERLE: Okay. I am just trying to help you out, this really is aâ
CHAIR: He is the friendly bear. But we do not have any active application for fresh meat?
Dr Cupit : No we do not. We have applications, but we are not undergoing any risk assessments at this point in time. However, in the future we will have to consider those requests in our normal work program.
CHAIR: With the two applications we have now, there is no obligation for us to have an IRA is there?
Dr Cupit : The obligation for the Netherlands is that it is on our work program, so in due course we will have to consider that doing that risk assessment.
Dr Cupit : Croatia has not applied for fresh meat access, so they are not on our current application list.
CHAIR: Do you have any idea when the lights will come on onto the Netherlands?
Ms Mellor : That would be a matter ofâ
CHAIR: Them, rather than us?
Ms Mellor : No, no. Not at all.
CHAIR: I realise you have gotâ
Ms Mellor : Allocating resourcesâ
CHAIR: Limited resources.
Ms Mellor : Well that is exactly right. Limited resources, and there are other priorities not only driven by other countries' applications but our own industry's need to access material, genetic material et cetera from overseas. They will get priority as well.
CHAIR: So you will keep this committee informed if anyone makes an application for a fresh meatâ
Ms Mellor : I think we have previously indicated we would do so.
CHAIR: Just want to keep you onâ
Ms Mellor : We certainly have not had any further since the Netherlands have approached us.
Senator STERLE: I am sure you will find out if there is a breakdown in communicationâ
CHAIR: So to the best of your knowledge, given the experience of a couple of years ago when we were about to go down the path of the American importation, which they surrendered on and the Japs said they could not afford it, vice versa. To the best of your knowledge is the border still open with Mexico?
Ms Mellor : I do not write the IRAs. I will turn to those who do.
Dr Cupit : From my own personal experience after being a councillor in the US for a number of years, that border is highly regulated. It is for other reasons, especially for TB et cetera. Only certain states in Mexico can actually import cattle into the United States, and it is highly regulated with animal identification et cetera.
Ms Mellor : I think the reality is that if the US did ask us to restart the clock by virtue of providing information to us we still have a long way to go through in a risk assessment process, including that we would make a call on whether we would do an in-country visit in the process of settling the IRA.
CHAIR: It would be over my dead body. The identification process that you just mentioned for trafficking of cattle as opposed to drugs and people from Mexico into the US, what is it?
Dr Cupit : They have been using a combination of tagging systems.
CHAIR: What sort of a tagging system?
Dr Cupit : It is usually an ear tag, not electronic. However, the US has been examining a variety of identification systems for a number of years.
CHAIR: Are you at all aware of the debate going on in the US from everyone from the Cattlemen's Association up and down of the likelihood of full traceability there? I think we have a good electronic systemâcongratulations for everyone hereâeven though, you know, things happen. Do you have any idea of the likelihood of full traceability over there?
Dr Cupit : They already have those systems of traceability and it is a degree of debating whether these systems are equivalent to others, but they do have systems already and they have had systems in place for many years.
CHAIR: I am talking about electronic life to death.
Dr Cupit : As far as I understand it, it is yet to be determined. We are regularly in discussions with them on their animal health systems but, again, it is up to their system to decide what they are going to put in place.
CHAIR: What cattle come across the border now from Canada?\
Dr Cupit : As in the numbers?
Dr Cupit : My understanding is that it has always been in the approximate range of anywhere between half a million to a million cattle that can cross the border.
Dr Schipp : That will be considered when the application comes forwardâ
CHAIR: Do not encourage him not to keep doing it.
Dr Schipp : and that risk will be assessed at the time.
CHAIR: And I will be right on your hammer.
Dr Cupit : One other thing to add is that Canada has an electronic system of identification.
CHAIR: All right, does anyone want to have a crack? Or do you want to go home and have lunch? What do you reckon? See you at estimates?
Ms Mellor : It is in your hands, Chair.
CHAIR: See you at estimates. Thank you very much.
That concludes today's hearing and thank you all who have appeared, and to Hansard and Broadcasting: It's lunch time!
CHAIR: See you at estimates?
Ms Mellor : In your hands, Senator.
CHAIR: See you at estimates. Thank you very much.
Committee adjourned at 12:55