The threat to Aussie steak
Lost in the aftershocks of the home insulation scandal is a story with deadly implications for beef farming in Australia.
A Senate inquiry is underway into a decision to lift the ban on importing beef from countries tainted by mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
From next Monday, beef from countries like the US, Canada, Britain and other European nations will enter Australia, without being subject to the usual import risk assessments.
If you believe the federal government, an independent review of scientific evidence indicates it’s now safe.
If you believe the opposition, the government is being led by the nose by large multinational processors which dominate the industry.
“It’s plain bloody stupid and I’m going to raise hell about it,” Liberal Senator Bill Heffernen said with characteristic subtlety.
While farmers are organising protest rallies, those purporting to represent them are sending mixed messages.
The Australian Beef Association has said the expected increase in imports couldn’t come at a worse time: beef prices are at their lowest level since the 1974-78 cattle depression.
Three abattoirs have closed in recent weeks, with the loss of 540 jobs.
Because of the strong Aussie dollar, there’s likely to be a flood of imported processed food including pies, sausage rolls and beef jerky, which will be sold bearing an Aussie flag.
It only has to be “substantially transformed” here to be labelled Made in Australia.
The president of the Cattle Council of Australia, Greg Brown, seems to have splinters from sitting on the fence.
After initially saying he was “horrified” to hear there’d be no import risk assessments, he now claims “there’s a low risk of BSE entering the country, but we need to be confident we have a process that ensures that risk is as low as we can possibly make it.”
Now, here’s where it gets interesting.
Some beef industry power brokers actually supported lifting the ban, but were forced to sign confidentiality agreements with the government.
Both the Red Meat Advisory Council and Meat and Livestock Australia are believed to be “on side”.
MLA managing director David Palmer told the senate estimates inquiry it’s all about providing “trade consistency”, while RMAC chairman Ian McIvor insisted that “the risk of Australia importing BSE-affected products remains negligible”.
Their support for the government has come as a rude shock to many cattle farmers, reeling from long periods of drought and competition from the live export trade.
During a rally at a Labor party dinner in Lismore last week, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard barely looked up as she ran the gauntlet.
Later, rally leader Anne Thompson handed her a petition to table in parliament.
Fearing a rural revolt late Friday, Agriculture Minister Tony Burke made a commitment that farmers will be part of the process to design the food safety protocols for applications to being beef to Australia.
But he only committed to protocols protecting human health – not animal health.
The Minister reckons we’re protected by quarantine regulations but, as one farmer said on our 2UE program yesterday, that didn’t stop the outbreak of equine influenza three years ago.
The core issue is the double standard of “traceability”.
Beef coming into Australia from BSE-affected countries won’t be traced back to individual farms, while cattle properties at home are tracked through the National Livestock Identification System.
“How on earth can we be sure about the beef that’s coming from that (overseas) property?” asked Nationals senator Fiona Nash.
Privately, many farmers fear the beef sector will head down the same path as the pork industry, crippled by the flood of cheap imports from North America.
In the words of one of the thousands of farmers peppering protest websites, “It’s a sell-out of Australian farmers, Australian consumers AND Australian jobs”.
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