Safeguarding Australia from seedy biosecurity risks

All Australians are being reminded to be biosecurity aware, following cases of unsolicited seed packets being received through the mail.

Head of Biosecurity Operations, Emily Canning, said imported seeds must adhere to strict biosecurity conditions that help manage pest and disease risks.

“The department is aware of the cases overseas and we have had a small number of reports in Australia that are under investigation,” Canning said. “It is an important reminder that we all need to do our part to safeguard Australia from biosecurity pests and diseases. This includes reporting potential biosecurity breaches and following the correct process if you are purchasing seeds from overseas.

“If you do receive seeds in the mail that you did not purchase, do not plant the seeds or put them in the garbage.”

Secure the seeds and immediately report it to the department. Imported seeds that do not meet biosecurity conditions can threaten our environment, agricultural industries and even backyard gardens. They could also be carrying invasive species or harmful plant diseases.

“This is why we have strict conditions for the import of seeds, to help manage these serious biosecurity threats,” said Canning. “At our international mail centres, detector dogs, x-rays and biosecurity officers are also in place to intercept any potential risk items that arrive. We do regularly intercept seed packets from overseas that are mis-declared as jewellery, gifts, earrings and garden tools.”

These items are either exported back to the sender or destroyed, to ensure they do not harm Australia’s agriculture or environment.

“We all have a role to play to support our biosecurity. Be biosecurity aware, report any breaches and help keep Australia free of pests and diseases,” said Canning.

Pork slices, plants and sausages caught in biosecurity crack down

This year has been a year of contrasts which has seen an increase in biosecurity risks arriving at Australia’s international mail centres.

Between January and April, Biosecurity officers intercepted around 30,000 mail items posing a potential pest and disease threat.

Head of Biosecurity, Lyn O’Connell, said the impact of COVID-19 seems to have led to more people purchasing certain goods online from overseas.

“In total, our officers intercepted around 9000 more mail items containing biosecurity risk material, compared to the same four-month period last year,” Ms O’Connell said.

“This includes more than 26 thousand mail items containing seeds, 1,800 containing animal products and over 600 containing meat.

“Biosecurity detector dogs have been especially busy at the mail centres, making a range of important finds.

“This includes a parcel that contained 40 eggs and was heavily infested with live insects. Eggs can carry significant risks, including Newcastle disease and avian influenza.

“The detector dogs also intercepted live plants, pork slices and sausages, a kilo of retorted chicken feet and 925g of pork buns.

“Another parcel contained 10 peyote cactus – Lophophora williamsii, which were referred to the Australian Border Force as they can potentially be used for narcotics.

“Meat and animal products can carry animal biosecurity risks, including African swine fever, which could devastate Australia’s pork industry.

“Seeds and plants are a biosecurity risk because they can carry pathogens or pests that can threaten the environment and horticulture industries.

“Our biosecurity officers and detector dogs provide crucial front line defence at our mail centres, and we’re also deploying 3D x-rays that can automatically detect biosecurity risk items.

“However, everyone needs to do their part in safeguarding Australia’s agriculture and the environment by doing the right thing when buying goods online from overseas.

“Make sure you are aware of items that may not be permitted and do your biosecurity research before you click purchase.”

Mail items that pose a biosecurity risk and do not meet import conditions are directed for immediate export back to the overseas sender, or immediately destroyed.

People found to breach Australia’s biosecurity conditions can be subject to an investigation and possible criminal prosecution.

CSIRO working hard on African swine flu

African swine fever (ASF) is a fatal pig disease. And it’s on Australia’s doorstep with confirmation of outbreaks in Timor-Leste, 680 kilometres from northern Australia.

The disease is found in sub-Saharan Africa and has been detected in countries in Eastern Europe, including Russia and Ukraine. This year we have seen the disease sweep down through Asia and towards Australia.

ASF kills about 80 per cent of the pigs it infects and there is no vaccine or cure. Some estimate a quarter of the world’s pigs will be dead by the end of this year from ASF.

The consequences cannot be understated as pork and other red meat prices are already seeing an increase in Europe and Asia. There is also talk of a global protein shortage for 2020 as a result of ASF.

READ MORE: Western Meat Packer appoint new Australian sales manager

Australia, which has a $5.3 billion pork industry and 2700 producers, continues to be free from the disease. The CSIRO is working with the Australian government and industry to keep it that way.

ASF on our doorstep
The Department of Agriculture has implemented tight biosecurity measures. This maintains strict controls over imported products, which could be contaminated with the ASF virus. It also has heightened surveillance and increased screening for banned pork products.

Recently, Australia deported a Vietnamese tourist after border officials found 10 kilograms of banned food products in her luggage. This included a large amount of raw pork. She was the first tourist to have her visa cancelled and be expelled from the country over breached biosecurity laws.

In September 2019, researchers at our Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) tested pork products, seized at international airports and at international mail processing centres, for ASF virus. AAHL is Australia’s leading high-containment laboratory for exotic and emerging animal diseases. It has unique facilities and expertise to manage the biosecurity risks of testing samples for the virus.

The results from AAHL’s testing last month showed 48 per cent of seized products were contaminated with ASF virus fragments. This is an increase from 15 per cent in the testing AAHL undertook earlier this year.

Detection of these virus fragments does not necessarily mean they can cause infection. But it does highlight the need for Australia’s strict biosecurity measures. Authorities are now using these results to refine and strengthen Australia’s border measures.

ASF is harmless for humans but spreads rapidly
ASF is harmless for humans but spreads rapidly among domestic pigs and wild boars through direct contact or exposure to contaminated feed and water. For instance, farmers can unwittingly carry the virus on their shoes, clothing, vehicles, and machinery. It can survive in fresh and processed pork products. It is even resistant to some disinfectants.

With no vaccine available, controlling the spread of the virus can be difficult. This is especially so in countries dominated by small-scale farmers who may lack the necessary resources and expertise to protect their herds.

For example, swill feeding—giving pigs kitchen and table waste in which the virus can persist—is a common practice throughout Asia. This is a major factor contributing to the spread of ASF. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to enforce a ban on this practice. Especially across so many small holder farms in resource-poor countries affected by the disease.

But, action is being taken.

Australia’s domestic biosecurity network
many Australian agencies are  working together to manage surveillance and monitoring as the risk of ASF entering Australia is on the rise.

In addition to testing, these agencies continue to strengthen our national biosecurity network. The CSIRO is working with quarantine services, agriculture and human health organisations to build awareness, assessment, resilience, preparedness and response.

Our researchers are working on understanding how ASF infects pigs as well as looking at novel approaches to producing a vaccine. With no vaccine currently available, outbreaks of ASF are difficult and costly to contain and eradicate.

In the policy space, a round table meeting at Parliament House was recently held. Along with other leaders, scientists and governments, the CSIRO shared the work currently being undertaken and the actions needed to keep ASF out of Australia.

Plans are underway for a simulation exercise later this year. This will test Australia’s disease response capabilities to make sure the country is as prepared as it can be.

Helping our international neighbours
AAHL has an important role to play in the Asia-Pacific region. Its international team work with partner agencies and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide expertise, training and laboratory skills to rapidly identify disease.

This support enhances the region’s capacity to manage emergency disease outbreaks. It also assists Australia’s pre-border security through better threat assessment and management of viruses circulating in neighbouring countries.

It also provides regional expertise to the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization (a specialised agency of the United Nations) for emergency preparedness missions to the number of countries at risk of virus.

We can all help
Fortunately, Australia’s pig industry is better equipped to manage the necessary biosecurity measures. And producers are willing to put strict controls in place to keep the disease at bay. Hobby farmers must also be careful to follow the rules.

Nobody wants to see images of dying pigs and farmers struggling to make ends meet on our screens. Everybody can play a role in good biosecurity.

Be aware of the risks and, most importantly, please don’t import illegal meat products or feed pigs with food scraps.

Using next generation genetic testing to give growers a competitive boost

QUT has partnered with Hort Innovation under the Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative (PBRI) to advance the use of next-generation genetic sequencing technologies, giving Australia’s horticulture sector a competitive boost through faster access to new plant stock.

This partnership identified issues that included:

  • Current quarantine screening for pathogens in new plant genetic stocks can take up to three years
  • Next generation high throughput sequencing technologies could reduce this to 6-12 months
  • More rapid access to new genetic plant stocks will help primary producers to remain internationally competitive and profitable

The project is being led by QUT Senior Bioinformatics Solutions Architect Associate Professor Roberto Barrero, from the Division of Research and Innovation, and draws in expertise from the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries, facilitated by the PBRI.

Previously, Associate Professor Barrero headed the multidisciplinary team at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre in developing a diagnostic toolkit that accurately detects in a single test all known plant viruses and viroids. From this research, a single assay test is now being used by the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources for quarantine screening of ornamental grasses brought to Australia.

Associate Professor Barrero said the project with Hort Innovation would look at optimising the toolkit’s next generation sequencing technologies for screening of pathogens in a range of crops – in the first instance, grapes, citrus fruits, berries and potatoes.

“At the moment the traditional biological testing platforms used for screening of imported plant species are resource-intensive, time-consuming and may produce ambiguous results,” he said.

“Imported plants can spend up to three years undergoing pathogen testing, potentially impacting the ability of agricultural industries to access new crop varieties and adapt quickly to global market opportunities.

“Next generation sequencing technologies offer a faster, more reliable and cost-effective way to identify all known plant pathogens without having to run numerous tests. These technologies are capable of sequencing multiple DNA molecules in parallel, enabling hundreds of millions of DNA molecules to be sequenced at a time.

“This project will assess the robustness, accuracy and reliability of these methods compared to existing testing protocols.”

Hort Innovation R&D Manager Dr Penny Measham said reducing the time that imported plants spend in Australia’s quarantine system has a direct benefit for growers.

“Rapid and safe access to new plant genetic stocks, supported by appropriate policy, is crucial for primary industries to remain productive, profitable, sustainable and internationally competitive,” she said.

Associate Professor Barrero said the research team will work closely with quarantine agencies in Australia and New Zealand and policy groups to develop operating procedures and a quality assurance program for next generation sequencing testing.

Dept of Agriculture releases webs series on biosecurity

The Department of Agriculture has released ‘Country–Handle with Care’, a biosecurity web series that calls on locals and visitors to do their part to protect Australia from the biosecurity risk of pest and disease.

Speaking at Cairns ECOFiesta, Head of Biosecurity, Lyn O’Connell, said the series features well-known television personalities who share the department’s commitment to biosecurity.

“Biosecurity is everyone’s business and now, more than ever, we must all learn to recognise the key threats as they occur and take action to stop them in their tracks,” O’Connell said.

“Country–Handle with Care shows that we all have a role to play.

“The seven-part series features biosecurity officers, scientists, and our Indigenous Rangers who work on the frontline to help safeguard Australia’s environment, plant, animal and human health against pest and disease risks.

“Our biosecurity champions are supported by family favourites, Costa the Garden Gnome, dirtgirl and scrapboy. It also features horticulturists, farmers, fishers and tourism operators.

“The series tackles a wide range of pest and disease risks, including Asian honey bees, Queensland fruit fly and Asian green mussel, which all pose a significant risk for Australia.

“More importantly it highlights what visitors and locals can do to be better biosecurity aware, such as keeping an eye out and reporting potential biosecurity risks.

“I encourage everyone to get involved and view the web series so we can all do our part to keep Australia healthy and clean.”

Announcement on biosecurity steering committee​

Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud has announced the chair and members of the biosecurity levy steering committee.

The committee contains representatives from industry and farm groups to help steer an informed delivery for the levy, which will see importers pay for biosecurity border screening.

The chair will be David Trebeck. Mr Trebeck currently chairs Australia’s Oyster Coast and has been a non-executive director of six ASX-listed companies since 1997, including GrainCorp Ltd (13 years) and Incitec Pivot, and has been involved in shipping since 1974.

He was a non-executive director of the shipping company, AP Moller Maersk, a national water commissioner, director of the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation and contributed to the Commonwealth Government inquiries into Long Term Policy for the Agriculture and Food Sector, Fuel Taxation, Biosecurity and three Commonwealth Fisheries. He also worked with the National Farmers Federation from 1972-1983 and co-authored the Beale Review into biosecurity in 2008.

The steering committee will also include Paul Zalei from the Freight Trade Alliance; Margie Thomson from the Cement Industry Federation, Mike Gallacher from Ports Australia, Mike Sousa from Qube Holdings, Rod Nairn AM from Shipping Australia, Brian Lovell from the Australian Federation of International Forwarders, and Tony Mahar from the National Farmers Federation.

“Australia’s border biosecurity protects our food supply, 300,000 jobs, the $60 billion agriculture industry and our way of life,” said Littleproud.

“If our border biosecurity is breached and say foot and mouth disease entered Australia, consumers would pay much more for meat and the losses to farmers would be around $50 billion.

“Those creating biosecurity risk should contribute fairly to addressing that risk, remembering pests and diseases arrive on the hulls and decks of ships and not just in the imported product itself.

“If the taxpayer alone bears the burden of protecting Australia then companies being bailed out by the taxpayer are unlikely to take our biosecurity seriously.”


Biosecurity risks​ to Australian produce minimised with new x-ray unit

A 3D x-ray unit that will help detect biosecurity risks faster and more effectively has been installed at Melbourne International Airport.

The aim is to minismise the risk of pests entering Australia via passengers, mail and cargo such as fruit and vegetables.

The Rapiscan RTT 110 X-Ray unit has been in action since November 14.

Minister for agriculture David Littleproud said there will be a year-long trial of the x-Ray unit, which is a huge step forward for Australia’s biosecurity.

READ: Australian biosecurity ‘stronger than ever’

“Our clean green reputation makes Australian produce valued overseas and we have to protect that,” said Littleproud.

“We’re seeing more people, mail and cargo come through our borders. ​

“That means more risk to Aussie farmers and we’ve got to stay on top of it,” he said.

“We need to make sure they’re not bringing in pests or items carrying pests, which could destroy our farm sector.

“Our biosecurity officers do a great job but they can’t check every bag,” said Littleproud.

“Australia is a world leader in biosecurity and we always strive to be better. New technology like this X-ray unit is an important part of keeping pests out.

“This world-first trial with Biosecurity NZ will change the way we work for the better,” he said.

X-ray images from Melbourne and Auckland airports will be combined into an image library then used to create an algorithm that can instantly identify high-risk items.

The algorithm will be trialled with fruit for six-months, then on vegetables, seeds and meat.

Biosecurity screening provides critical protection for Australia’s $60 billion agricultural industries and the health of the country’s communities, environment and the national economy.