Beef imports

Questions and answers on Australia’s imports of beef

On 1 March 2010, the Australian Government implemented a new policy for beef imports. The new policy allows all countries, including those which have experienced cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to apply to export beef to Australia.

Why were the import conditions changed? Isn’t our health at risk?

No. Australia’s human health authorities have clearly stated that food safety standards are unchanged by this new policy.

The 2010 policy change was made because the science has moved on since the original 2001 BSE food safety policy was introduced. We now know there is no scientific justification for a blanket ban on beef imports based on whether a country had reported cases of BSE — providing acceptable BSE control programs are in place.

The Australian review on the science and control measures for BSE in support of Australia’s policy can be found at the Department of Health and Aging  website.

The BSE food safety policy requires exporting countries — irrespective of whether they have had a case of BSE — to demonstrate they have acceptable controls in place and that those controls are monitored. This includes controls on food safety, animal health, traceability, surveillance, and feeding and slaughter practices.

How does a country get to export beef to Australia?

Under the policy countries wishing to export beef to Australia must apply for a country BSE food safety assessment. The BSE food safety assessment is conducted by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Once FSANZ completes the BSE food safety risk assessment certain heat-treated beef products for human consumption from that country may then be eligible for importation into Australia. This is because the heat treatment applied to them would also satisfy Australia’s biosecurity requirements (i.e. retorting – cooking of the beef in a sealed container for a stipulated time and temperature).

FSANZ publishes updates and reports on the status of their BSE food safety assessments on the FSANZ website.

If a country wants to export fresh beef (i.e. chilled or frozen) to Australia they must complete an additional step in the process. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) must complete a risk analysis of that country’s animal health and production systems for fresh beef. This will determine what biosecurity conditions need to be met to reduce any biosecurity risk associated with import of fresh meat from that country to an acceptable level.

Information on these processes is available from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand website and the Beef and Beef Products for Human Consumption page of the DAFF website.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry administers the BSE food safety and biosecurity policy at the border to verify that imports of beef and beef products comply with Australia’s requirements. Beef and beef products imported into Australia are subject to strict government certification verifying the country of origin of the beef.

Is imported beef tested at the border for BSE?

No. There is no test available for the BSE agent in beef or processed beef products. Instead, countries rely upon official government documents about the origin of the beef.

Where does the beef come from that’s in our supermarkets and butcher shops now?

Imported canned products that contain heat–treated beef are available in Australian supermarkets. This beef must be sourced from cattle raised and slaughtered in countries that have been approved by FSANZ. The heat-treated products must also meet DAFF’s heat processing requirements before they can be imported into Australia.

A product can be manufactured in a country that is not approved by FSANZ, if the beef comes from an approved country. This is the case with a number of canned and ready to eat meals that are imported from the United States (US) for example. Most of the beef used in these products actually comes from Australia and New Zealand.

Most fresh beef sold in Australia is meat from Australian cattle. A small amount of fresh beef has been imported from New Zealand and Vanuatu. These are the only two countries that are approved to export fresh beef meat to Australia. That is because they meet Australia’s food safety and animal quarantine requirements.

Other countries may be able to meet these requirements in the future.

How are imported beef products labelled? Who checks the labelling?

Australia requires that the country of origin is clearly marked on labels of domestic and imported packaged processed foods. This is a requirement under the Food Standards Code.

Labels are monitored for compliance with Australian food standards by DAFF and by state and territory food safety authorities within Australia.

What about other food safety tests?

FSANZ is responsible for developing and maintaining the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code which applies to all food whether imported or produced here. FSANZ provides advice to DAFF on monitoring and testing of imported food.

DAFF Imported Food Program operates a risk based inspection scheme to assess imported food against Australia’s food standards. Information on the operation of the scheme and the tests applied to food is available on the DAFF website Imported Food Inspection Scheme page.

DAFF monitors consignments of fresh beef and processed beef products for compliance with biosecurity requirements, labelling standards and suitability of the product for human consumption. Samples may also be taken for testing.

Which countries have applied to DAFF to export fresh beef to Australia?

Canada, the US, Japan and the Netherlands have all applied to DAFF to export fresh beef to Australia. The import risk analyses (IRAs) for beef from the US, Canada and Japan was announced on 8 April 2010. FSANZ has recently completed its BSE food safety assessment of the Netherlands. The DAFF assessment for beef from the Netherlands has not commenced.

What is happening with the IRAs? Why have they stopped?

The IRAs for beef from the US, Canada and Japan were paused as a result of DAFF invoking the ‘stop the clock’ provision of the Quarantine Regulations 2000. DAFF can pause an IRA in certain situations, for example when further information is needed to complete an IRA and is not provided by the other country. The Beef IRA has been paused for all three countries for the following reasons:

  • Japan had a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, which was considered a significant international quarantine circumstance that limited DAFF’s ability to complete the import risk analysis within the regulated timeframe
  • The US and Canada advised that they were not in a position to provide further information essential for the completion of the import risk analysis, but may be able to do so in the future.

When will the IRAs restart?

DAFF will consider restarting the import risk analyses when the US, Canada and Japan are in a position to meet our requirements. This includes submitting complete information on their cattle health status, beef production, inspection and certification systems to DAFF for consideration.

Will there be opportunity for consultation in the risk analysis process?

DAFF will consult with stakeholders at key points through the process. Stakeholders should register with DAFF so they are informed of any developments.