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Trading in food safety? The impact of trade agreements on quarantine in Australia

The Australia Institute

Trading in food safety?

The impact of trade agreements on quarantine in Australia

Hilary Bambrick
National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health
The Australian National University
Discussion Paper Number 73
October 2004

Click here to download the paper (PDF)


International trade in food is increasing and bringing new challenges to public health. In
the past, Australians have been able to take it for granted that the food they consumed
was relatively safe as rigorous national food standards were applied both to
domestically produced and imported food. Quarantine regulations ensured that imported
foods were subject to the highest food safety standards. The capacity to maintain and
apply these standards is now being undermined by international trade agreements and
procedures for settling trade disputes. The recent free trade agreement (FTA) between
Australia and the US highlights the issues concerning trade and food safety.

Rules of trade are governed by a number of World Trade Organisation (WTO)
agreements, which are binding for member countries. Although intended to limit non-
tariff barriers to trade, these agreements have the potential to affect food safety
adversely. Australia is under increasing pressure to harmonise its risk assessment and
quarantine regulations with international recommendations, leading to a weakening of
Australian standards. Negotiators increasingly treat quarantine as a bargaining chip. In
the Australia-US FTA, for example, Australia agreed to make some quarantine
concessions in order to increase market access for the US. Forthcoming FTA
negotiations with China and Thailand are likely to place even more pressure on
Australia’s quarantine standards. Even if quarantine is not explicitly included in trade
negotiations, it remains vulnerable to challenge under the WTO dispute settlement
process. International trade agreements can therefore diminish the capacity of countries
to employ domestic legislation to protect public health.

Australia currently applies the precautionary principle in trade matters. Applying the
precautionary principle means taking action (for example, to protect health and
agriculture) in the absence of full scientific certainty about a particular risk. Australia
therefore invokes quarantine when there is potential risk rather than only when a risk
has been proven to exist. This cautious approach is not recognised by some trading
partners as scientific but instead is considered unnecessarily restrictive of trade. The
pressure on Australia to harmonise its quarantine regulations igno res the fact that the
cautious approach to food safety has been demonstrably effective in protecting public
health. It has, for example, protected Australians from bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE). Australia took action to ban imports of British cattle well before
the devastating human health consequences of BSE were realised.

Such precautionary action today is considered by trading partners as a purely
protectionist measure. BSE is a particularly important example as it highlights the
potential for unknown risks arising from the complexity of modern food systems and
illustrates some of the shortfalls of internationally accepted practice. Furthermore,
health risks from BSE can extend beyond food consumption, potentially to
contaminated pet food, cosmetics and vaccines.

While the potential risks associated with BSE are now widely known, Australians are
also protected from a range of other health risks by our cautious approach to import risk
assessment. For example, Listeria is a form of bacteria that can multiply at refrigerator
temperatures and cause meningitis or septicaemia in children and the elderly. Exposure
to Listeria during pregnancy can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. Despite the severity of
these health effects Australia’s import standards in relation to soft cheeses and other
potential sources of Listeria infection have already been reduced as a result of pressure
from importers.

Avian flu provides another example of the importance of a cautious approach to import
risk assessment. The avian flu virus can be fatal to both humans and poultry and is
potentially devastating for the Australian poultry industry. Australian quarantine
regulations banning the importation of raw poultry are therefore vital to protecting both
Australian public health and the Australian poultry industry. These protections are,
however, likely to come under pressure in forthcoming free trade agreements.

This paper examines the impact of trade agreements on Australia’s capacity to maintain
an appropriate level of protection through cautious import risk assessment and
deployment of quarantine to protect public health. It establishes some principles for
safeguarding Australia’s food supply into the future and concludes that in order to
protect public health and preserve food safety, Australia needs to play an active role in
ensuring that quarantine and food safety standards are improved worldwide. To date
international trade has exerted downward pressure on labour standards, human rights
and environmental practices. Australia can protect its own national interest and the
interests of developing countries by ensuring that quarantine standards do not become a
bargaining chip in future world trade negotiations.

 source: The Australia Institute