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Imported Food Inspection Scheme

The Department of Agriculture (the department) helps protect Australia's food producers by managing the risk of exotic pests and diseases entering the country.

It also inspects imported food to check it meets Australian requirements for public health and safety and compliance with Australian food standards as detailed in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code). The Code applies to all foods for sale including those manufactured in Australia.

The legal basis for the food safety inspection of imported food is the Imported Food Control Act 1992 and the applicable standards under the Act are those set down in the Code. Under the Act, importers are responsible for ensuring that all food imported into Australia complies with relevant standards in the Code. 

This legislation allows the department to run a food safety inspection program known as the Imported Food Inspection Scheme (IFIS). Foods are referred for inspection under the IFIS by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (Customs) based on internationally agreed tariff codes.

Summaries of data from inspections, including the results of analytical testing, are publicly available.

In addition the department's imported food testing, the state and territory jurisdictions also have responsibility for ensuring that all food, including imported food, meets the requirements of the Code at the point of sale. Foods failing to meet the requirements of the Code must be re-exported, destroyed, treated where possible or downgraded.

Risk foods

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) provides advice to the department on the foods that pose a medium to high risk to public health. The department classifies these foods as ‘risk foods’ under the inspection scheme.

Risk food is referred to the department by Customs at a rate of 100 per cent of consignments. Risk food is initially inspected and tested at a rate of 100 per cent against a published list of potential hazards—including micro-organisms and contaminants. Once five consecutive consignments have passed inspection, the inspection rate is reduced to 25 per cent; after a further 20 consecutive passes, the inspection rate is reduced to 5 per cent.

Risk foods are subject to 'test and hold' direction and are not released for sale until test results are known. Consignments of risk food which fail inspection and therefore do not meet Australian standards cannot be imported. These foods must be brought into compliance otherwise the food will be re-exported or destroyed.

Any consignments that fail result in a return to 100 per cent testing of that product until a history of compliance is re-established for the producer of the food.

Surveillance foods

All other foods are considered to pose a low risk to human health and safety and are classified as 'surveillance foods'. Each consignment of surveillance food has a five per cent chance of being referred for inspection to assess its compliance with Australian food standards.

The selection of surveillance food consignments is random and the referral of those consignments is done using electronic profiles in the Customs Integrated Cargo System. Information such as the importer, producer or the country of origin of the goods does not affect the random selection and referral of a surveillance food. There is the possibility that an importer who regularly imports similar consignments of surveillance foods (i.e. low risk food in the same tariff group) will increase the chance of these consignments being referred by the random profiling.

Samples of surveillance foods may be analysed for pesticides and antibiotics above accepted levels, microbiological contaminants, natural toxicants, metal contaminants and food additives.

As the surveillance foods are considered to be low risk, they are subject to a 'test and release' direction and can be distributed for sale before test results have been received. However, if there are adverse test results, the relevant state or territory food regulatory authority is advised so they can determine if a recall is required. Any action, such as a recall or withdrawal taken on goods released by an importer is at the importer's expense.

The inspection rate for surveillance food that fails inspection is also increased to 100 per cent until a history of compliance is established for the producer or importer of the food. The process for increasing inspection of surveillance food is referred to as applying a Holding Order. A holding order remains in place until favorable test results are received. Following five consecutive passes, the rate of referral returns to five per cent of consignments.

What happens during an inspection?

When a consignment of imported food has been referred for inspection, the inspection will involve a visual/label assessment and may also include sampling the food for the application of analytical tests. For further details, please see Imported Food Notices for surveillance and risk foods.

There are many standards in the Code, and it is not practicable to inspect against all standards, particularly for low risk foods. The department inspects imported foods against a selection of standards but not all standards.

The tests applied may change from year to year so that the department may inspect compliance against different standards over time. There are some exceptions where, following a risk assessment of the food, FSANZ advises the department of additional tests to be applied to specific risk food.

Information released under the FOI Act

The department received a Freedom of Information Act 1982 request (FOI 2013/14-21) seeking access to copies of all operational procedures and policies relating to the sampling and inspection of imported food products. In response, nine documents were released to the applicant on 24 October 2013:
  1. Completing the Imported Food inspection report (IFIR) EX317 IFP-WI101PDF icon PDF [2.2 MB]
  2. Imported food visual inspection IFP-WI102PDF icon PDF [799 KB]
  3. Imported Food Interpreting Analytical Results IFP100-WI104 PDF icon PDF [4.8 MB]
  4. Imported Food Labelling Inspection IFP100-106 PDF icon PDF [1.1 MB]
  5. Taking samples of Imported Food IFP-WI107 PDF icon PDF [1.7 MB]
  6. Imported Food Sampling Plan IFP100-WI109 PDF icon PDF [1.7 MB]
  7. Failing Food Notification IFP-WI111 PDF icon PDF [1.9 MB]
  8. Failed Food and Deeming Food Examinable IFP100-WI115 PDF icon PDF [2 MB]
  9. Determining Food Category and tests applied IFP-WI123 PDF icon PDF [1.7 MB]

The applicant also requested copies of the department’s complaints handling procedures and policies. In response, two documents were released on 24 October 2013, one of which - the Suggestions, Compliments and Complaints Brochure - is already publically available on the department’s website:

10. Guidelines to the BSG Compliments and Complaints Management System (CCMS) PDF icon PDF [326 KB]