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AQIS - Abalone virus and melamine in Chinese products

Estimates & Committees
Christine Milne 20 Oct 2008

(Senate-Monday, 20 October 2008)

AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY PORTFOLIO - Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service 

 Senator MILNE» -I would like to start by asking for an update on the ganglioneuritis virus in abalone. Can you tell me where that is up to, particularly in relation to the Tasmanian experience? We received a briefing note recently, but there was only a passing reference to the fact that it had been found in the wild fishery in Tasmania, not just in the processing plant. If you could give me some information about that to start with I would appreciate it.

Dr Carroll-The situation is that no further evidence of AVG has been has been found in Tasmania. The one piece of evidence found in the field was actually just a DNA positive on one of the abalone sampled in the field. There was no sign of disease or evidence of disease just in the typing looking for DNA or genetic evidence. They did turn one up, but only one. My understanding is that the Tasmanian government has now disbanded the emergency response and it is now being managed as normal business because they have had no further evidence of any disease.

Senator «MILNE» -Is there anything further to report about the spread of the disease in Victoria?

Dr Carroll-Nothing further at this stage that I am aware of. As to the Victorian situation, it is still in that long area along the west coast of Victoria. It had been moving slowly eastwards. My understanding is that its progress had slowed, but there are no particular developments in that area at this stage.

Senator «MILNE» -Is the Commonwealth involved in managing the response in Victoria or has that been devolved to the Victorian authorities?

Dr Carroll-The Victorian authorities are the ones who are managing the response on the ground. They have previously invoked the national arrangements under the Aquatic Consultative Committee on emergency animal diseases. We are also involved in providing advice and some money for research and other things to do with AVG as well. The actual management of disease within Victoria is a function of Victorian government.

Senator «MILNE» -What about protocols in terms of recreational divers, as well as the professional industry?

Dr Carroll-We have been in discussion with various industry sectors, but again that comes under the Victorian state government. There is a group looking at that and, the last I saw of it, all the parties were freely discussing and consulting on those issues.

Senator «MILNE» -This has been going on for some time. Should we have a protocol in place now in relation to recreational divers in particular?

Dr Carroll-One of the difficulties is that it is a very poorly understood disease. It is a relatively new disease. The knowledge that we gain from Victoria was certainly used by Tasmania in their response. The extent to which diving may or may not transmit the disease, and the effect of the disease being transmitted that way, is still not well understood. During our discussions with the dive industry there was a lot of discussion about having voluntary restrictions. One of the difficulties with abalone is that there is a black market in abalone and poaching, and any degree of regulatory control will find it very difficult to stop that spreading disease as well. One of the other chief means of suspected spread was the lobster industry. When I was last involved they were cooperating very closely with the abalone divers because they did not want to be the cause for the spread of that as well. It was working through cooperative arrangements as the knowledge of the disease also evolved.

Senator «MILNE» -Who is spending money on research into the disease?

Dr Carroll -I believe the Victorian government. We are also spending some money on research into the disease as well.

Senator «MILNE» -How much is the Commonwealth spending and where is the effort being concentrated?

Dr Carroll-DAFF has provided $100,000 for priority research, a National Abalone Health Workplan; $35,000 to support a working group to develop models for an abalone disease response arrangement-the current arrangements are in draft; and $35,000 to complete an AQUAVETPLAN disease strategy manual, which is currently in draft form. Specifically on research, we are spending $100,000 and that is done under a cooperative arrangement with the industry and also the Victorians of course.

Senator «MILNE» -Did that $100,000 include the last couple with education and the manual?

Dr Carroll -No, they are separate.

Senator «MILNE» -Is that in addition to that?

Dr Carroll -Yes.

Senator «MILNE»-The other issue I wanted to raise with you was in relation to reports about contamination of vegetables grown in China and imported into Australia. I realise that FSANZ does most of the work in terms of food standards. Has there been any discussion between FSANZ and Quarantine and Biosecurity about sampling any of the imports, et cetera, for the melamine contamination?

Mr Aldred -We will need to get the expert person to the table.

Mr Read -Were you talking about melamine horticultural products?

Senator «MILNE» -Melamine contamination.

Mr Read-There has been a lot of ongoing discussion which has been facilitated through FSANZ in accordance with a response protocol for this particular issue. That has subsequently led to the state regulators reviewing a range of products that potentially pose a risk. Where there has been product identified of concern, then there has been communication with AQIS where it is a risk to take appropriate response.

Senator «MILNE»-Has there been any work done in relation to the reports about mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and watercress, which is the latest in this range of suggested contamination?

Ms Clegg-At the moment FSANZ has not given us advice that we need to be sampling imported horticulture products for melamine contamination. We are in constant contact with them-we are talking to them every day-about the new reports that are coming in and advice from the other food safety agencies around the world to keep in touch with this sort of thing but, so far, no.

Senator «MILNE»-That is interesting because in the media reports Food Standards Australia are saying that Australian investigators were taking the matter seriously, were talking to overseas agencies and doing a risk assessment.

Ms Clegg -Yes.

Senator «MILNE» -Are they not discussing that with you in regards to the risk assessment?

Ms Clegg-Their risk assessment has not involved us testing samples at the border, and that is our contribution to their assessment. We provide them with information, for example on consignments that are coming in. If they ask us to test it at the border we then arrange for products to be profiled and sampled and we give them those results. We are not doing that at this stage. They are using their contacts overseas to conduct their own risk assessment.

Senator «MILNE» -The risk assessment does not extend, at this stage, to actual testing of the imported product?

Ms Clegg -No. They have not asked AQIS to sample the imported product yet.

Senator «MILNE»-It may be a slight exaggeration in terms of the extent of the risk assessment, so I would like to think that we would do some sampling of product coming in and not just be talking to overseas agencies. I note that you have not been asked to do it yet.

Senator COLBECK -I would like to ask some questions about this, too.

Senator «MILNE» -Senator Colbeck wants to pursue this matter as well.CHAIR -Senator Colbeck.

Senator COLBECK -I understand there are about 189 products that have been identified internationally that may contain melamine. Have we identified which of those that FSANZ are aware of and which ones are actually coming in to the country? Have you done that work to identify which of those products might be coming in to Australia?

Ms Clegg-No. The way we have managed it is like this. Product comes into Australia and is sampled at the border for a range of tests for things that we know would be in them. Melamine, at the moment, is not in the Food Standards Code as something that we need to test against. We are not routinely testing anything for melamine at the border. Because it is a deliberate contamination, it is not something that should be in food, that is one of the reasons why it is not in the Food Standards Code. It should not be there in the first place. The code is about allowable limits of things that might occur. An example would be antibiotic residues.

Based on the advice from overseas countries that they have found a higher level of melamine in a product, FSANZ will have a look at that information and they can advise AQIS that that product might present a risk to food safety for Australians. On that basis AQIS can profile and select out those imports when they arrive at the border and have them tested. That is how we are managing the infant formula. Even though, under quarantine rules infant formula does not come in from China, we have a profile so that if someone was importing it we could pick it up and have it tested. It would also be canned for quarantine, but we would be able to manage it that way.

The Kirin Milk Tea is a product that has been identified. We are able to manage that by selectively going for the manufacturer of that product. All consignments that come in with that brand name from that manufacturer are directed to AQIS through the customs system for testing to see whether it has melamine contamination that would be a food safety risk.

For other things, the White Rabbit creamy candies would be a good example, FSANZ have advised that they are a low risk, therefore AQIS is not having that product referred to us at this stage.

Senator SIEWERT -So is it still coming in?

Ms Clegg -It can, but the problem for an importer is that they cannot legally sell that product now because the states and territories also regulate food in Australia. It is what is called ‘unsuitable'. If you are importing it, what are you going to do with it? The big area of concern is for people that take the majority of their food source from milk-based products such as babies and infants. So in the first instance, FSANZ is paying very close attention to that and then it is looking at the products that have less than 10 per cent dairy ingredient in them, such as all sorts of powders for adults.

Senator COLBECK-I understand that the products are split into two categories: one with a higher than 10 per cent and one with less than 10 per cent.

Ms Clegg -Yes.

Senator COLBECK -And there are considerably more in the second category.

Senator «MILNE»-With reference to the question I asked earlier, I am looking at another media report that came out where FSANZ released a statement saying:

No products in Australia have been found to be affected but further tests were carried out.

It goes on to state:

Australia imports some vegetables from China. We are taking it seriously. At this stage we can find no evidence that fruit and vegetable imports are unsafe but it is certainly something we are looking at.

That implies that they have actually tested some. From what you are saying you have not been asked to test any. Would FSANZ use anyone else other than AQIS or Worldwide Security?

Ms Clegg -Yes. They would. There is a network. The way the food system is regulated in Australia, the states and territories have the power to have food recalled. AQIS does not have that power in the Imported Food Control Act. The states and territories can take samples and have products tested, and they have been doing that. So, when there are those reports of 180 products or the fruit and vegetables, each of the states and territories can independently make their own decision, or if they are having a discussion with FSANZ about a survey-and certainly, we have been supportive of them having a survey and we are going to pay for some of the testing-they make their decision about whether we will go and sample and then report that back to whether they are finding anything. So, that is the way we are managing that at the moment. People are going out, seeing what is on the shelves, sending it off to a lab for testing and reporting that back. That is pretty much the way most other countries in the world are doing it and we are sharing that information.

Senator «MILNE» -Which states and territories have actually done some testing of actual imports?

Ms Clegg-I do not know about the fruit and vegetable testing. A number of the states and territories have done testing for the White Rabbit candy. I cannot remember, but they have and they have provided that information to FSANZ. Victoria recently provided information about the milk product, the tiramisu cake and the Daylin yoghurt drink. I do not know who did the Kirin Milk Tea, but that was one of the states and territories reporting that back in.

Senator «MILNE»-Given that a lot of Chinese vegetables are frozen, imported in bulk and then repackaged in Australia and sold as ‘Made in Australia', it would seem to me that there is some urgency in actually testing some of these products. But you are saying that you have to wait for FSANZ to tell you to do it.

Ms Clegg -The product that we would see would be the vegetables coming in from China before they are repackaged.

Senator «MILNE» -That is right.

Ms Clegg-And they are sampled at the moment at the rate of five per cent, so FSANZ has to establish in its own mind that there is a risk to human health and safety.

Senator BOSWELL -I would have thought that four babies being killed indicates a pretty significant risk.

Ms Clegg-It is if you are eating infant formula as your only food. Adults are not; and fruit and vegetables are not being fed to babies causing that. It is the infant formula and the contamination in that milk powder that has been the issue.

Senator COLBECK -Does it actually lift the protein levels in milk?

CHAIR-Senators, before we go offline, let us stick to questions and be mindful of the time and that we have created this drama for the department, not them. So, on that, Senator Colbeck, has your question been answered?

Senator «MILNE» -Dr O'Connor was going to say something.

CHAIR -Dr O'Connor?

Dr O'Connell -I am happy not to.



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