Department’s action on imported prawns - update April 2017

The Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources continues to take appropriate steps to support Queensland in managing the current outbreak of white spot disease. Separately the department is taking steps to manage the biosecurity risks associated with the importation of uncooked prawns which is one possible pathway for white spot disease.

Australia's prawn industry is worth more than $350 million a year and a range of actions are underway to safeguard it.

White spot disease is a highly infectious disease that can kill infected crustaceans but does not pose a human health or food safety risk.

The disease was confirmed on 1 December 2016 at a prawn farm in the Logan River region in south-east Queensland; since then all stocked prawn farms on the Logan River have been infected and rigorous eradication measures have been underway for some time.

Recent testing of prawns in the northern Moreton Bay area identified a number of prawns and crabs which were positive for white spot. There is no evidence that the virus is present outside the Moreton Bay containment area.

The trade suspension of imported uncooked prawns remains in place and has been amended to allow the resumption of importation of some products where it is safe to do so.

Border inspection and testing rates of permitted products have been increased and about two million kilograms of imported uncooked prawns are currently held in secure facilities around Australia. Work continues to determine whether those prawns contain the virus, in which case they will be exported or destroyed, or whether they are free of the virus and can be sold in Australia.

Outbreak

The Queensland Government, with support from the Australian Government, is working to eradicate an outbreak of white spot disease in seven prawn farms on the Logan River in south-east Queensland.

In Queensland more than 19,000 samples of wild prawns and crabs have been sampled with only a comparatively small number of positive results, including detections in northern Moreton Bay. In March, Queensland implemented additional movement controls for Moreton Bay for three months as a precaution to minimise the risk of further spread.

The Australian Government is providing up to $1.74 million in emergency funding to assist with some of the costs incurred during the response to the outbreak, as well as to fund biosecurity preparedness and communication activities for the industry. This includes $400,000 to prawn farmers for the costs they incurred during the early stages of the control activities; $221,000 to the Australian Prawn Farmers Association to assist with the response and to improve biosecurity in the aquaculture prawn industry and $220,000 to the Queensland Seafood Industry Association to improve biosecurity in the wild capture prawn industry.

The Australian Government has been in ongoing discussions with the Queensland Government and the prawn industry—through the Australian Prawn Farmers Association—regarding additional support measures for prawn farmers affected by the recent outbreak of white spot disease in south-east Queensland.

An offer recently sent to APFA and the Queensland Government proposed this package be funded equally by the Australian Government, the Queensland Government and the Australian Prawn Farmers Association.

Under this package, costs that will be covered include the costs already incurred by the Queensland government in responding to the disease, as well as reimbursing farmers for direct losses as a result of the disease or eradication activities.

This is consistent with similar arrangements for terrestrial animal diseases and plant pests, which have been in place for over a decade.

It is also consistent with the proposed Emergency Aquatic Animal Disease Arrangement, which is currently being negotiated for responses to aquatic animal disease incursions.

Departmental investigations

The department commenced investigations in 2016 into possible illegal activities of a number of prawn traders. Since then the department has submitted a brief of evidence to the Commonwealth Director of Pubic Prosecutions (CDPP). Additional investigations are ongoing.

In addition one importer has had its Approved Arrangement and two prawn import permits revoked. Action against further entities is underway.

Trade suspension

The Director of Biosecurity suspended uncooked prawn imports into Australia on 6 January, 2017. The suspension applies to uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn meat and marinated uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn meat.

Exemptions to this suspension include:

  • Uncooked prawns and prawn meat sourced from Australia's exclusive economic zone and New Caledonia
  • Dried prawns and shelf-stable prawn-based food products
  • Uncooked prawns and prawn meat processed into dumplings, spring rolls, samosas and other similar products
  • Uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn meat that has been coated for human consumption by being breaded, crumbed, or battered
  • Irradiated imported bait for aquatic use, pet fish food and aquaculture feeds containing uncooked prawns and prawn meat
  • Uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn meat moved into Australia's External Territories from all origins, and all movements between Australia and the External Territories, and between the External Territories
  • Uncooked Australian wild-caught prawns exported overseas for processing, and re-exported to Australia
  • Uncooked prawns and uncooked prawn meat as transhipped goods for outgoing passenger vessels engaged in international travels; or as laboratory or food samples for analysis.

These exemptions have been made because stringent measures have been applied to the importation of these prawn products including strict on-arrival testing and mandatory notification by trading partners of positive offshore test results.

Retail withdrawal activity

The department first took action to remove white spot infected product from supermarket shelves as soon as the suspension was in place.

Major retailers withdrew product from sale—and held product in distribution centres—while the department tested for the presence of white spot. Where results showed the products were free from the disease they were released back to supermarkets.

The department has completed a testing regime focused on preventing infected product making its way to supermarket shelves. Together with major supermarket retailers, the department has tested about 300 tonnes of prawn products at distribution centres around the country. A significant volume of tested product was found to be infected and has been removed from sale.

Additionally, the department has secured a significant amount of uncooked prawn products located across the country in cold stores and wholesale facilities which is being tested for the virus. Product found to be infected will not be permitted to proceed to the marketplace.

White spot infected prawn meat presents no human health risk and is safe to be consumed. Consumers are advised to cook and eat any raw prawns that have been purchased from the supermarket.

It is critically important that people do not use prawns meant for human consumption as bait. People need to ensure unused prawns (or parts of prawns) are disposed of appropriately, and are not discarded in Australia's waterways.

Border testing

All uncooked prawn and prawn meat that was at the border or on the water at the time of the suspension remains under biosecurity control until it has been inspected, tested or exported. Where uncooked prawn and prawn meat has tested positive to white spot disease it is held securely under biosecurity control until it is exported or destroyed.

The department has increased border inspections of some permitted goods, such as breaded, battered and crumbed uncooked prawns to a 100 per cent inspection rate, and enhanced monitoring of other permitted products, like uncooked prawns and prawn meat processed into dumplings, spring rolls, samosas and other similar products.

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