Shoppers may be innocently helping to spread diseases with the potential to devastate Australia's livestock industries.
A little understood biosecurity threat is hiding in cans and packets on our supermarket shelves, an ACM special investigation has found.
Canned meat and fish arrives by the container load and some of it originates from countries with nasty livestock diseases Australia spends millions trying to keep out.
Despite tight rules over how the mostly pre-cooked food is allowed in, some producers and meat industry leaders fear it is largely a self-regulated industry where one slip-up could allow devastating diseases like foot and mouth or BSE (also known as mad cow disease) to slip through.
Unless a shopper closely examines the often-tiny labels of the canned or frozen product they are buying, most would be none the wiser of the risks involved.
Nor would they realise they are lining the pockets of Brazilian ranchers or European pork producers and big global food companies at the expense of Aussie farmers when they opt for tinned imported meat at a third of the price of the Australian counterpart.
The Australian Government has kept a tight hold on fresh beef imports, with only Japan and New Zealand allowed to ship steaks that compete with home-grown product.
The Netherlands, the United States and Vanuatu have made applications but never finalised negotiations.
The first import permits for fresh chilled or frozen beef from Japan were issued in August 2018.
Beef in cans from overseas has been arriving since the early 2000s. Volumes are relatively small at between 6000 and 9000 tonnes per year. Most comes from New Zealand.
Less than a thousand tonnes comes from Brazil, according to Department of Agriculture data.
For countries other than NZ and Japan, only retorted (or heat treated) beef is permitted to be imported into Australia. Not all canned goods are retorted.
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The department describes the retort process as 'requiring that the goods have been hermetically sealed in a container before being heat treated to a minimum core temperature of 100 degrees Celsius.'
The retort process is supposed to make the product commercially sterile and shelf stable, mitigating the disease transmission.
Cooking and/or canning alone does not eliminate the risk of foot and mouth disease, a departmental spokesperson said.
BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), however, is highly resistant to heat and other treatments and the retort process does not eliminate the risk of BSE, a chronic degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of cattle.
Consequently additional import conditions require retorted beef to be sourced from animals born, raised and slaughtered in countries assessed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand and assigned a category one or two BSE risk rating, the spokesperson said.
Brazil has been assessed category one, right alongside NZ and numerous other countries.
Therefore, it is deemed to have comprehensive and well-established controls to prevent both the introduction and amplification of the BSE agent in its cattle population and contamination of the human food supply with the BSE agent.
A human version of mad cow disease called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is believed to be caused by eating contaminated beef products. It is fatal.
Last year, Brazillian officials confirmed two cases of atypical BSE in cows, triggering a suspension of beef exports to China.
The World Organization for Animal Health investigated and did not make any change to Brazil's status as a negligible risk country for BSE.
But plenty of cattle producers around the world are not convinced.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association in the US just last month renewed its call for the immediate suspension of fresh beef imports from Brazil.
NCBA has repeatedly called for a thorough audit of Brazil's animal health and food safety system, to ensure the safety of the US cattle herd.
In 2021, Brazilian exports to the US increased by 131 per cent and in the first three months of 2022, Brazil has already shipped more than 50,000 metric tons of fresh beef to the US.
The NCBA says Brazil has 'a long history of failing to report BSE cases in a timely manner.'
The Australian Beef Association's Brad Bellinger has long argued with authorities about imported beef in cans and the risk of BSE.
A senate inquiry in 2010 recommended banning all imports from countries with BSE but that was overturned, he said.
It simply makes no sense for Australia to take that risk, according to Mr Bellinger.
Not only does it put the entire beef industry at risk, but people too. And the bottom line is, most Australians wouldn't buy it, even at the very low price point, if they realised the extent of that risk, he said.
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Supermarkets who sell Brazilian beef in cans under their own private labels have long argued they also stock the Australian beef versions and just want to give customers the choice of all price points.
Charity groups have pointed out such food is a cheap source of protein for many battlers.
A small tin of 340 gram corned beef from Brazil - not everyone's cup of tea for taste - is selling for $2.50 at major supermarkets today.
A 350g serving of fresh Australian rump at the same supermarket was $14.
Industry groups say they face a continual fight to raise issues about these type of imports even at the risk of being slammed as being anti-trade and self-protectionist.
The Australian pig industry says it has waged a long war to keep fresh pork out of the country, arguing biosecurity risk.
The pork industry claims to be the only livestock industry in Australia competing with imports in this way.
This is an industry with a gross value of production in 2020-21 estimated at $5.3 billion.
"The fresh pork sold on Australian shelves is all locally produced," an Australian Pork Limited spokeswoman said.
"It's been produced following global best practice quality assurance standards."
The industry argues imported product is not required to meet the same environmental and quality assurance guidelines as Australian pork.
Most smallgoods such as ham and bacon are imported.
Each year, about $812 million worth of pork products are imported which translates to around $15.6 million each week.
These products largely come from Denmark, the Netherlands, USA, and Canada.
"To ensure you are supporting Australian pig farmers, make sure to check that the country of origin labelling bar chart on the back of pack indicates the product is made from 90 per cent or more Australian ingredients," the industry spokeswoman said.
Imported chicken products account for less than one per cent of the chicken sold in Australia, a spokeswoman for the Australian Chicken Meat Federation said.
The lion's share of fresh and frozen raw chicken meat available in Australia is domestically produced.
"Australia has strict protocols in place governing the importation of raw and cooked chicken meat," the spokeswoman said.
Those restrictions are meant to protect chickens from exotic diseases.
"Australian poultry more generally, as well as our wild birds, are protected from the entry of avian diseases and consumers are protected from the impacts of exotic avian diseases," the spokeswoman said.
"Consumers can be confident that chicken meat sold in Australia is grown to high animal welfare standards and chickens consumed in Australia are only treated with products registered and approved for use in Australia."
Poultry producers from other countries have so far been unable to meet our strict protocols.
The exception to this is chicken produced in New Zealand, which has a similar favourable disease status to Australia.
The only other imports currently permitted are small volumes of processed chicken meat products that have been fully retorted (ie cooked to high temperature in their container), such as sometimes found in canned chicken or soups.
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