Biosecurity Matters, Edition 1, 2021

​​​​​Biosecurity Matters


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Biosecurity is the management of the risk of pests and diseases entering, emerging, establishing or spreading in Australia and causing harm to animals, plants or human health, the economy, the environment and the community.

Our playful detector dog Ulf noses out the Top Dog title for 2020


Ulf is Australia’s Top Dog of biosecurity, showing a real talent in 2020 for sniffing out the risk items that could threaten our agriculture and environment.

Some dogs win awards like Best In Show, but they have nothing on 2020’s Top Dog of biosecurity, our yellow Labrador Ulf.

Ulf’s pawformance was awarded top biosecurity detector dog in 2020, sniffing out 400 biosecurity risk items at the airport, seaport and mail facilities in Brisbane. Ulf has a nose any wine connoisseur would envy, as he uncovered 80 different commodities as part of those 400 detections.

47 of the detections were African swine fever (ASF) risk items. With harder-to-detect mutant variants of this devastating pig disease showing up now in Asia, our work to ensure ASF doesn’t reach our shores and make its way onto farms is vital to protect farmers’ livelihoods.

While Ulf took top spot this year, we’re proud of all 42 of our detector dogs, as well as their trainers and handlers. This crack team of dogs and humans work around Australia stopping exotic pests and diseases entering our country through improperly or illegally imported fruit, vegetables, meat, and much more.


Continue reading about our playful detector dog Ulf noses out the Top Dog title for 2020

The slowdown in international arrivals over these last 12 exceptional months did not mean that our dogs had an easy year. They instead primarily deployed to our international mail centres, where the Australia-wide pack screened 15.7 million mail items and intercepted 13,500 risks!

Luckily, they were well prepared to respond to our collective online shopping addiction. They’re trained to detect over 200 different risk items, from large food and plants to tiny seeds.

They can also detect hitchhiker pests that can hide in packaging, like brown marmorated stink bugs. If these nasty bugs established themselves in our country, they would chew through almost every food and fibre crop we grow.

While Ulf worked hard to earn the coveted Top Dog title, he enjoys a happy work-life balance, taking to pools, sprinklers and sandpits during his play time to get nice and muddy.

You can meet our detector dogs in their video profile.

COVID travel restrictions don’t stop biosecurity threats


This year sees increased penalties for travellers who knowingly breach biosecurity laws, but if you just declare the contents of your baggage truthfully you will avoid any penalty.

International travel may have been impacted due to COVID restrictions, but travel hasn’t stopped altogether. It remains a serious pathway to introduce exotic biosecurity threats into Australia such as African swine fever (ASF), a highly contagious viral disease of domestic and wild pigs, and khapra beetle, a threat to Australia’s agriculture and export markets.

“Travellers coming to Australia on government-facilitated flights, international students studying here and seasonal workers travelling to Australia are being advised not to bring food”, explained Jim Simpson, head of the Inspection Services Group in our Biosecurity Operations Division.

“We’re working with other Australian Government agencies to provide biosecurity information for travellers before departing. Travellers can avoid lengthy delays if they do not bring biosecurity risk products, such as food and contaminated clothing and equipment, to Australia,” Mr Simpson said.


Continue reading about COVID travel restrictions don’t stop biosecurity threats

Underlining the serious nature of biosecurity threats being brought or mailed into Australia are the new increased penalties that came into effect on 1 January 2021 for travellers who knowingly breach biosecurity laws.

“The majority of travellers do the right thing and accurately declare what they have brought into the country,” Mr Simpson said.

“But since 1 January 2021, travellers who knowingly fail to declare high-risk goods, or otherwise provide false or misleading information, can be issued with an infringement notice with a penalty amount of up to $2,664. They may also be referred for civil penalty proceedings or criminal prosecution.

“Furthermore, under recent changes to Australian migration law, international passengers who breach the Biosecurity Act 2015 by failing to declare high-risk biosecurity items could also have their visa cancelled and be refused entry into Australia. They are then generally not eligible to apply for another visa for 3 years”, he said.

Three higher value infringement notices have already been issued to travellers for failing to declare high biosecurity risk goods since the higher penalties were introduced.

People returning to Australia need to pay attention to biosecurity requirements. Before you travel, check what can and cannot be brought into Australia.

“You must declare any food, plant material and animal products, and other risk items on your Incoming Passenger Card. This includes footwear, clothes and equipment that have been in contact with animals or worn in a rural area,” Mr Simpson said.

“Don’t bring food with you, including food offered on the flight. If you must bring food with you, please declare it. There are no penalties for people who truthfully declare food or other biosecurity risk goods.

“We have also seen an increased number of biosecurity risks arriving at Australia’s international mail centres. Exotic pests and diseases, such as pork products which could carry ASF, may not be something you think about when buying goods online. You need to ensure the goods will meet our biosecurity conditions when they arrive at an Australian international mail centre,” he said.

Before you make an online purchase, check what can and can’t be mailed to Australia.

“Many items may seem harmless. There are diseases that can survive for long periods in products. This makes it possible for diseases to spread to new areas. Be sure to tell overseas family or friends sending goods to Australia to check before sending, and to complete the sender declaration accurately”, Mr Simpson said.

Always check what you can bring to Australia, and if in doubt, just declare it truthfully to avoid penalties.

Ehrlichiosis: protect your dog from this tick-borne disease


Protect your dog from ehrlichiosis by using tick prevention treatments.

Ehrlichiosis is a serious disease that can affect our canine best friends, with the potential to be fatal. Dogs can catch this disease if they are bitten by a brown dog tick carrying the deadly bacteria Ehrlichia canis. Brown dog ticks are widespread in the warmer parts of Australia.

Dr Mark Schipp, the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer, said that unfortunately this once exotic disease has recently been detected here.

“Australia was considered free of ehrlichiosis until it was detected in May 2020 in northern Western Australia,” Dr Schipp said.

“Since then, the disease has also been found in Northern Territory and parts of South Australia. We still don’t know where else it may have become established, so if you suspect your dog is sick from this disease please contact your vet without delay.


Continue reading about Ehrlichiosis: protect your dog from this tick-borne disease

“If your dog becomes infected with ehrlichiosis it may experience fever, a decrease in appetite, lethargy and nose bleeds. Some dogs develop severe and rapid weight loss, swollen limbs, blindness and can have difficulty breathing,” he said.

Getting your dog to a vet early provides the best chance for them to recover.

Ehrlichia canis is notifiable which means any dog suspected of being infected needs to be reported to animal health authorities. You or your vet can do this by phoning the Emergency Animal Disease Watch hotline on 1800 675 888. Reporting will help paint a clearer picture of where there this disease is occurring in Australia.

Dr Schipp emphasised that the most important thing you can do to protect your dog is to have them on a tick control program.

“There are a number of tick prevention treatments available including tick collars, injections, tablets or spot-ons,” he said.

Where possible, avoid taking your dogs into tick-infested areas. Inspect your dog daily for ticks, especially if they have been in a tick-infested area. To check if your dog has ticks run your fingers through your dog’s coat over their skin and feel for abnormal bumps. Pay particular attention to the head and neck, inside their ears, on their chest, between their toes and around their mouths and gums.

If you are heading north with your dog or travelling through Australia’s northern regions, be particularly vigilant about tick-infested environments and congregations of dogs which may be carrying ticks.

This includes places where you may stop, like fuel stations and caravan parks. Western Australia may have movement restrictions in place so check the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development website before leaving home.

If your dog is unwell contact your nearest vet. Early treatment provides the best chance for them to recover.

Infected dogs do not transmit ehrlichiosis to people, however, in rare cases, infected ticks may infect people. The Australian Government Department of Health website has information about ticks and human health precautions.

For more information about ehrlichiosis visit our Outbreak website.

Khapra, a stubborn survivor and priority plant pest – what we’re doing about it


Khapra larvae and larval skins on the floor of a shipping container. Khapra beetle can survive in containers for years without food, which is why we need to determine which containers pose a high risk.

In 2020 Australia saw a marked increase in khapra beetle (Trogoderma granarium) interceptions. These tiny but hardy insects, or their remains, were found in goods they had previously not been found in, and in shipments from countries not known to have khapra beetle.

Khapra beetle is a significant global threat to agriculture, infesting grain and stored dry food products, such as dried fruit and nuts, making them unfit for human or animal consumption. As a highly invasive pest, it poses a major threat to Australia’s billion-dollar grains industry.

Australia’s freedom from the pest allows for continued access to valuable international markets. If khapra beetle was to establish here, many of our trading partners would reject stored produce from Australia, causing huge losses and affecting our economy. A widespread incursion could cost Australia $15.5 billion over 20 years.

The major pathway by which khapra beetle can enter our shores is sea containers. They hide away in cracks and crevices of containers that have carried goods from countries known to have the beetle.


Continue reading about Khapra, a stubborn survivor and priority plant pest – what we’re doing about it

The beetles can survive for years without food and will emerge in warm conditions or when a food source becomes available – which can include cardboard packaging.

Australia considers khapra beetle to be the world’s second most damaging plant pest and keeping it out remains a high priority.

Australia receives millions of containers a year, so it’s not possible for us to inspect every sea container that arrives.

We allocate effort and resources to the highest risk sea containers while undertaking surveillance and verification activities on other, lower risk sea container pathways. Identifying which sea containers pose the highest risk is a significant challenge that requires global coordination so that containers can be tracked, and their movement histories accessed.

We are working with our overseas counterparts, industry and research organisations to identify possible global supply chain solutions.

In the meantime, the department is implementing urgent changes at the border to address the risks of khapra beetle entering with plant products, which are known hosts, and in sea containers.

From April 2021, containers from khapra beetle countries that carry high-risk plant products (ones that khapra are known to eat, such as rice, wheat and chickpeas) or are destined to Australia’s rural grain growing areas, must undergo mandatory treatment.

Additional measures on a broader range of containers are expected to commence in late 2021.

In addition to the department’s urgent measures, on 29 December 2020, Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud announced a $14.5 million investment to strengthen biosecurity measures at the border. This new funding will provide for:

  • faster containerised cargo inspections and increased surveillance
  • improved sample collection, diagnostic resources and equipment and treatment
  • enhancement of electronic systems.

We are also looking into new technology that can assist in strengthening Australia’s biosecurity measures at the border. As khapra beetle can remain undetected in sea containers for many years, new technology is needed to quickly determine if a sea container is a risk before it is released from biosecurity control.

We are trialling eDNA technology, which may be the solution to this challenge. eDNA is DNA left behind by an insect as traces in dirt and dust. Find out more about the new detection method in an article in our biosecurity innovation hub The Seed.

Find out more about khapra beetle and the urgent actions we’re taking to protect Australia.

Our 3D x-ray units see big detection results


This year sees increased penalties for travellers who knowingly breach biosecurity laws, but if you just declare the contents of your baggage truthfully you will avoid any penalty.

Our 3D x-ray units are world leading, utilising world-first automatic biosecurity risk detection algorithms, designed by the department to automatically detect fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood and plant material.

Currently operating at the Melbourne airport and the Melbourne and Sydney mail gateway facilities, our 3D x-ray units are twice as effective in an airport environment and more than 3 times more effective in mail centres when compared to other detection technologies.

Jessica Mitchell, Director of Pathway Capability, explained that the units allow biosecurity officers to do their work more effectively and efficiently and will help streamline the passenger, air cargo and mail pathways into Australia.

“During 2020, 78 million international mail articles arrived in Australia and over 72 thousand mail articles were identified to contain actionable biosecurity risk material. Biosecurity risks will only continue to increase as the volume of goods entering Australia is expected to double between 2015 and 2030,” Ms Mitchell said.


Continue reading about our 3D x-ray units see big detection results

“In July last year we began to receive reports of people receiving unsolicited seeds in the mail. Since then, there have been 301 confirmed reports of unsolicited seeds being sent to Australian residents from overseas.

“Accordingly, we recently engaged a spin-off project to manage the emerging risk, for a specific x-ray unit for seed detection. Seeds make up approximately 80% of all detections in the mail pathway. They could potentially be the seeds of an invasive species or carry plant diseases that could threaten our backyard gardens, agriculture industries and the environment,” she said.

“Following the success of the 3D x-ray units, we are investing in refining our algorithms, installing more 3D x-ray units, and identifying other opportunities to innovate our border screening technologies.

“Australia is a world leader in biosecurity, and we will always strive to be better. Technology like this plays an important role in keeping pests out,” Ms Mitchell concluded.

Before you mail or bring anything into this country, check what can and can’t be mailed to Australia.

How to protect your birds from avian influenza


To keep your birds safe from avian flu you must adopt a few, simple biosecurity practices.

Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, is a highly contagious viral disease of birds. While it rarely infects humans, an outbreak in commercial flocks can be devastating for producers and Australia’s egg and chicken meat industries.

In July and August 2020, 3 different strains of avian influenza were detected in Victoria across 6 infected farms. It is likely a mild form of the virus circulating in wild birds, mutated when it transferred to the domestic flocks. 

To keep your birds safe from the virus, regardless of whether you are a commercial producer or only keep a couple of chickens in your backyard, you must adopt a few, simple biosecurity practices.

Dr Mark Schipp, the Australian Chief Veterinarian Officer, said there are a number of things you can do.


Continue reading about how to protect your birds from avian influenza

“Make the environment your birds range in less attractive to wild birds. For example, place feeders and water sources inside sheds rather than in the open. Also, use fencing or netting to keep wild birds from interacting with your free-range birds,” Dr Schipp said.

“Another step you can take is to keep your sheds, yards and aviaries clean. Change nesting materials regularly and routinely wash and disinfect your equipment. If you have reusable egg cartons, always keep them clean and stored away from birds,” he said.

Implementing quarantine practices can also help keep your resident flock healthy.

“Isolate new birds for 14 days, before introducing them to your flock”. Dr Schipp said. “If you attend bird shows, don’t allow your birds to mingle with others, and when you return home quarantine them before re-introducing them”.

“Finally, check if visitors to your property have been to any other premises where poultry is kept. Make sure you and your visitors wash hands after handling birds and eggs,” he said.

Birds that are infected with the virus may exhibit a range of severe symptoms including difficulty breathing, diarrhoea, swelling of the head or sudden death.

If you notice sick or dead birds (domestic or wild), contact the national Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.

For more information about avian influenza and the current disease response, visit the Agriculture Victoria website.

To find out more about the disease in humans visit the Department of Health website.

Robots in the plant lab: helping protect Australia from plant diseases


Ruvini Lelwala loads plant samples into the nucleic acid extraction robot to obtain RNA for further testing.

New robotic technology is aiding our scientists, speeding up and strengthening our ability to detect and diagnose exotic plant diseases. That way, we can intercept plant pathogens before they can become established and potentially devastate our food and fibre agriculture, as well as our natural environment.

Many of the plants that are imported into Australia for agricultural and horticultural use spend time at our post entry quarantine (PEQ) facility in Mickleham, Melbourne. There, they are subject to careful molecular (genetic) testing by our Science and Surveillance Group (SSG).

In the past, these tests were slow and laborious. Luckily, our expert scientists are now aided by the best in laboratory robotics so that tests can be produced in larger and more accurate numbers.

Head of the SSG, Wayne See Kee, said that introducing automation in the laboratory workflow would see not only an increase in speed, but also in accuracy.


Continue reading about robots in the plant lab: helping protect Australia from plant diseases

“One of our main methods of uncovering exotic plant diseases is quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) – this process is more simply understood as DNA or RNA testing,” Mr See Kee said.

“By automating a number of the steps in the qPCR process, the number of samples per day that can be tested increases dramatically, while variables due to human error can be minimised,” he said.

One new robot used by the Mickleham lab can extract three times the genetic samples per hour than the previous extraction method used. Another new robot sets up the qPCR tests, moving the prepared samples and other material used for the tests and combining them to be analysed. The robot has a moveable arm, as well as “smart” pipettes—controlled over a Bluetooth connection—to rapidly manipulate microlitre volumes of samples.

Finally, the lab has a new thermal cycler, in which the samples are subjected to different temperatures to induce the reactions that are key to the test. The new thermal cycler has a capacity 4 times that of the previous technology, allowing hundreds of tests to occur each hour.

“These robots are taking on the majority of the tedious, laborious work,” Mr See Kee said.

“We’ve got a high throughput workflow now, and it means we can continue to deliver accurate diagnostic tests that help safeguard our agriculture and environment from exotic plant diseases,” he said.

If you import live plant material to Australia, find out everything you need to do.

See the latest Import industry advice notices or Export industry and market access notices.

Last reviewed: 17 March 2021
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