THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN BEEF
In the late 1970's the word got around that one of the ways that a country could avoid the effects of the then international "free trade agreement", the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, was to use quarantine laws to prohibit the introduction of economically and politically sensitive products. This applied particularly to products resulting from rural production. Almost, incidentally, it also kept out both real and imagined "exotic" diseases. Australia found itself in a unique position as being an island continent and relatively free of livestock and plant diseases it was one of the few trading countries that could genuinely make a restriction claim based on quarantine reasons. Pests we had, but on the disease front we were reasonably well off.
For reasons that require no explanation, after World War II most heavily industrialised nations held a passion about their self-sufficiency regarding food. Meat, grains and fruit were at the top of the list and in order for their agricultural industries to compete with cheaper imports from agriculturally more efficient countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Australia, a system of internal subsidies were set up. This process has continued to this day. By way of example, the United States sugar growers presently enjoy a Government subsidy that amounts to twice the international sugar price. Similar situations apply to the European Community with grains, dairy and horticultural products.
It was in this environment that in the 1970's that State Governments were advised that the United States [US] was considering the banning of the importation of beef from countries that had not eradicated tuberculosis and brucellosis. The US claimed to be already well down this track. As Queensland had by then taken part in a national project to eradicate the cattle disease of pleuro-pneumonia the move to brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication seemed a natural progression. Both diseases affected humans and so eradication was considered an essential step.
Consequently, in order to maintain Australia's import rights into the US, a brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication scheme was set up. Part of this was the initiation of a stock identification system, which for those who don't remember, consisted of a plastic tail tag being attached to the animal's tail before going to either sale or the meatworks. The tail tag only contained a number and that identified the property where the tag was applied. A coordinated comprehensive on farm testing and a strict meat works inspection and reporting program made up the balance of the system.
These eradication programs, while costing a lot of money, were relatively low cost with a really quite acceptable degree of accuracy and success. The major cost was for the on-farm testing and for the producer this was a free service. In any event it served the purposes in that firstly it eradicated the diseases and secondly removed the potential, real or imaginary, for the US to completely ban our beef exports to the States.
During the 1980's a new disease of humans came to the notice of researchers and medicos. It was not really new but attracted successful research attention at about that time. A small but increasing number of humans was found to be developing a degenerative disease of the brain. The research success followed an outbreak of a bovine neural degenerative disease in the UK at about that time. This animal disease was found to be and described as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy [BSE], which had similar symptoms to the similar human condition that was called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease [CJD].
A casual connection was found between the conditions in both humans and bovines and the CJD became known as vCJD or perhaps nCJD, the "v" or "n" standing for "variant" or "new". In both bovines and humans the disease had a long incubation period and invariably resulted in death. In bovines the disease was caused by stock being fed feed supplements, such as meat meal, made from the waste products of ruminants, in short, abattoir waste. In humans, the cause of this disease was found to be as a result of eating diseased meats.
The symptoms of the disease are dramatic and disturbing and all will remember when the disease was discovered the TV coverage showing images of a black and white dairy cow slipping and falling and unable to stand up. The process of an audience mentally transferring this condition to humans was immediate.
In order to minimise the consequences of this bovine disease on a human population several steps were absolutely necessary. Initially the feeding of materials to stock likely to enhance the spread of the disease had to stop immediately. Secondly an extremely accurate livestock trace-back scheme had to be introduced. Thirdly a meatworks sampling and testing regime had to be initiated and finally, because the disease was transmissible in any beef product importation of meats from involved countries was to be banned.
Once again Australia seemed to be a little lucky or perhaps we had some really good industry managers 20 or so years ago. The feeding of cattle with meat-meal made from abattoir waste had been banned in Australia from the very early days. This meant that the probability of having infected cattle in Australia was close to zero as could be achieved. This notwithstanding, the Australian Government proceeded with the National Livestock Identification Scheme [NLIS] much to the dismay and financial cost to cash strapped beef growers.
The trouble now is that Australian cattle producers have the least likelihood of ever having the disease in their herds and yet have the most sophisticated trace-back and testing system in the world. This comes at an enormous cost to our beef producers. Each animal has to be fitted with an electronic identification device attached to the ear and this tag has to be read and verified on each movement of the animal through to the final trip to the abattoir. The movement is controlled by way of the old "Way Bill" system that was once free but can now amount to a significant cost.
Australia, and particularly the beef growers have adopted all of the appropriate measures to ensure the maximum protection for the Australian public but, unfortunately, they have been let down at every turn by the Australian government.
Firstly, the beef growers fund the system themselves. The Government's contribution is limited to administration and not always optimally. Secondly, at this time, we still have a good meatworks inspection and sampling system and thirdly, we have the technical expertise to accurately trace-back and test.
Where the public is being grossly let down is in the control of the importation of meats into Australia. Recently beef has started to be introduced into Australia from the US. The claim is made that this beef is of Brazilian origin but that makes it more unacceptable for other disease reasons. The US has a BSE history and its supplementary feeding regime is both long standing and resistant to change. No reliable trace-back system exists, and their meatworks-testing program to all intents and purposes is nonexistent. All in all the US could reasonably be considered a high-risk disease source. This is not said lightly.
Any numbers of reports on how effective or otherwise the USDA control systems can be are available. Some reports state that USDA control methods are simply not complied with and are meaningless. Other reports go to the extreme of saying the disease is not a problem at all and that all the fuss is over nothing. Some other reports are frightening only if true on some aspects.
Perhaps the most accurate report can be obtained from the USDA itself. It admits shortfalls in enforcement in supplementary feed controls and merely mentions a "new trace-back system" without offering any details. In part it states:
"Another study, released by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in February 2002, also noted the importance of feed rule compliance. The GAO study cited deficiencies in the FDA's oversight and enforcement of the feed rule."
Again recent figures quoted state that only about one (1) beast in 10,000 is subject to sampling and testing at US meatworks and with the lack of a trace-back system is virtually useless. Also the American meatworks inspection system is run by the works themselves and consequently must be questionable.
America is of special interest to Australian beef producers as, in the recent Australia America Free Trade Agreement, our then Minister for Trade Mark Vaile ensured that open entry of Australian Beef into the American market wouldn't happen for at least 18 years but it seems that US beef can come into Australia as of right under health standards we won't accept locally. On top of this the US is a competitor in our export markets and should be looked at in that light.
Some 65 nations now have import bans on US beef. The recent history of the Japanese import of US beef is interesting. Japan accepted US beef till December of 2003 when the US found its first BSE positive cow the so-called "Washington Cow". This caused Japan to impose US beef import bans, which lasted till December 2005. At this point the beef import ban was lifted but was reintroduced in January 2006 following a technical breach as a result of a US meat inspection failure. Japan subsequently re opened its market apparently following US pressure.
In Australia, US beef is again entering the local market. That there is some doubt as to the real origin of this beef is not at all reassuring and there is absolutely no reason to believe that the US has introduced an effective, or for that matter any, regime to control the problem.
In the meantime our producers can look forward to more of the same. The quicker they can get genuine representatives in Canberra who are prepared to look after not only Australian beef producers interests, but also the health interests of the Australian public generally, the better.
Voters should be questioning not only their present representatives on this matter but also any candidate that stands at the next Federal election. After all it is our health that is at risk and this may not become apparent for a number of years, by which time of course it may be too late.
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