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Tuesday, 9 May 1961

Mr WHEELER (Mitchell) (1:55 AM) .I realize that the hour is late, but I may not have another opportunity to direct attention to a serious situation which has occurred in the County of Cumberland or, to be precise, in an area stretching from Wollongong to Port Stephens in New South Wales, which was declared yesterday to be a pig quarantine area in order to combat a suspected outbreak of swine fever. This disease last occurred in 1942. At that time it cost producers about £1,000,000. On that occasion, nearly 10,000 pigs were killed before the disease was stamped out. Although a precise diagnosis has not been made, it is suspected that the disease may be swine fever and that it could have been brought to Australia in meat smuggled into the country by migrants. Scraps of the meat could have been fed to pigs and the disease introduced in that way. I hope that it will be proved that the disease is not swine fever, but whatever eventuates, one must be uneasy about our quarantine precautions and their effectiveness.

The quarantine regulations relating to the import of live animals are stringent, and rightly so, but those relating to the import of canned meats are loose and useless. Once it was said that the safety of Britain depended on a thin red line. The safety of our animal industries depends on a thin red tape line. An error at any one of a dozen points could bring disaster. Errors have already occurred. So far, they have had no serious consequences, but we cannot continue to depend on luck. There is no regular inspection of tinned meat imports by our Department of Health. The department depends on the country of export to declare the import and to furnish a certificate from the authorities in the exporting country to the effect that the consignment is free from disease. It accepts such certificates. To support that statement, I invite attention to a statement that was made in another place on 19th October last by the Minister for Customs and Excise (Senator Henty), who represents the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron), regarding imports of canned ham. Senator Henty said -

One small parcel got through without undergoing a proper quarantine examination, but the officers of the department have traced the parcel and have seized the hams.

Human errors, it will be seen, can and do occur. I shall mention a case which has not been officially admitted, because it is difficult to check the facts. I am not able to vouch for them, but they come from a good source and I believe that they are true. In June, 1960, a consignment of canned ham was admitted from Denmark without any certificate or clearance. This meat went bad. The matter was reported to the department, but 80 cans were never recovered. The normal thing to do in such a case is to dump the contaminated cans, but some may find their way into pig swill. According to the latest evidence in Britain, 70 per cent. of primary outbreaks of foot and mouth disease can be traced to swill containing affected meat. There is another unpleasant implication. The department only found out about some of the consignment I have mentioned because some of it went bad. No one knows how many uncertified consignments get through without ever being heard of. Once this disease gets through, there is no stopping it. Early last November it occurred in Britain and within a fortnight, 120 separate outbreaks were reported, extending from East Anglia to the Orkney Islands.

This outbreak in the County of Cumberland is a serious matter. The disease could spread throughout our primary industries. Therefore, I strongly urge the Government that, as a precautionary measure, it should act immediately to prevent any further imports of canned meats, canned hams and canned chicken. In addition, I urge the Government to tighten the existing quarantine regulations. I mentioned earlier that a certificate is given that canned meat imports are free from disease. But what is the value of a certificate from the exporting countries in relation to the sterilization of canned meats if our Department of Health places such reliance on the certificates? To the end of November, 1960, we had imported canned meats from 22 countries. In some of those countries the standards of hygiene are primitive. Proper guarantees in regard to shipments would seem to be important. Three of those countries - China, Hungary and Poland - are Communist-controlled so that we may not rely on either the honesty or the goodwill of the officials concerned, apart altogether from the question of standards. In other places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the population is so dense and economic conditions are so poor that even the utmost efforts of officials might be defeated!

Economically, these imports are of no importance to any one, but from a health stand-point, even the smallest is big enough to bring national disaster. We imported canned poultry and canned ham from the United States of America and Canada but these two products can be supplied very satisfactorily by local producers and the national interests of no country could be affected if we eliminated these imports, although the profits of a few individuals might be touched. In advocating a complete ban on imports of canned meat, I say that we cannot afford to run the risk which these imports present. Our exports are now absolutely vital. Our solvency would collapse without our great output of products of animal origin. In 1958-59, they provided 61 per cent. of our total exports. Not only foot and mouth disease, but also blue tongue, swine fever, Newcastle disease in poultry, and rinderpest are some of the scourges of the earth which, by magnificent luck, we have so far avoided. Pigs, sheep, cattle and poultry all are dependent forsurvival on the continuance of this immunity. How foolish it is to imperil our animal industries for the sake of importing a few hundred tons of canned poultry, ham and other meats which are already in plentiful supply locally. In fact, they are oversupplied.

I trust that the Minister for Territories (Mr. Hasluck), who is in charge of the House, will convey to the Government my remarks about the serious situation arising from this suspected outbreak of swine fever in the County of Cumberland, and I hope that the banning of the import of canned meats into this country will be considered.

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