The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources helps protect Australia's food producers by managing the risk of exotic pests and diseases entering the country.
It also inspects imported food to check it meets Australian requirements for public health and safety and compliance with Australian food standards as detailed in the
Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. The Code applies to all food for sale including those manufactured in Australia.
The legal basis for the food safety inspection of imported food is the
Imported Food Control Act 1992 and the applicable standards under the Act are those set down in the Code. Under the Act, importers are responsible for ensuring that all food imported into Australia complies with relevant standards in the Code.
This legislation allows the department to run a food safety inspection program known as the Imported Food Inspection Scheme (IFIS). Food is referred for inspection under the IFIS by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection based on internationally agreed tariff codes.
Summaries of imported food inspection data, including the results of analytical testing, are publicly available.
In addition to the department's imported food testing, the state and territory jurisdictions have responsibility for ensuring that all food, including imported food, meets the requirements of the Code at the point of sale. Food failing to meet the requirements of the Code must be re-exported, destroyed, treated where possible or downgraded.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) provides
advice to the department on imported foods that pose a medium to high risk to public health. The department classifies these foods as ‘risk food’ under the inspection scheme.
Risk food is referred to the department by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Risk food is initially inspected and tested at a rate of 100 per cent of consignments against a published list of potential hazards, including micro organisms and contaminants. Once 5 consecutive consignments have passed inspection, the inspection rate may be reduced to 25 per cent; after a further 20 consecutive passes, the inspection rate may be reduced to 5 per cent.
Risk foods are subject to 'test and hold' direction and not released for sale until test results are known. Consignments of risk food that fail inspection and therefore do not meet Australian standards cannot be imported. These foods must be brought into compliance otherwise the food will be re-exported or destroyed.
Any consignments that fail force a return to 100 per cent testing of that product until a history of compliance is re-established for the producer of the food.
All other foods are considered to pose a low risk to human health and safety and are classified as 'surveillance food'. Each consignment of surveillance food has a 5 per cent chance of being referred for inspection to assess its compliance with Australian food standards.
The selection of surveillance food consignments is random and the referral of those consignments is done using electronic profiles in the
Department of Immigration and Border Protection's Integrated Cargo System (ICS). Information such as the importer, producer or the country of origin of the goods does not affect the random selection and referral of a surveillance food. It is possible that an importer who regularly imports similar consignments of surveillance food (i.e. low risk food in the same tariff group) will increase the chance of these consignments being referred by the random profiling.
Samples of surveillance food may be analysed for pesticides and antibiotics above accepted levels, microbiological contaminants, natural toxicants, metal contaminants and food additives.
As surveillance foods are considered to be low risk, they are subject to a 'test and release' direction and can be distributed for sale before test results have been received.
If there are adverse test results, the relevant state or territory food regulatory authority is advised so it can determine if a recall is required. Any action, such as a recall or withdrawal, taken on goods released by an importer is at the importer's expense.
The inspection rate for surveillance food that fails inspection is also increased to 100 per cent until a history of compliance is established for the producer or importer of the food. The process for increasing inspection of surveillance food is referred to as applying a 'holding order'. A holding order remains in place until favorable test results are received. Following five consecutive passes, the rate of referral returns to 5 per cent of consignments.
What happens during an inspection?
When a consignment of imported food has been referred for inspection, the inspection will involve a visual/label assessment and may also include sampling the food for the application of analytical tests. See
Tests applied to risk food and
Tests applied to surveillance food.
There are many standards in the Code and it is not practicable to inspect against all standards, particularly for low- risk food. The department inspects imported food against a selection of standards but not all standards.
The tests applied may change from year to year so that the department may inspect compliance against different standards over time. There are some exceptions where, following a risk assessment of the food, FSANZ advises the department of additional tests to be applied to specific risk food.