The Public Health Association of Australia
In Touch | February 2005
When FTA spells BSE: Trading away our food safety
By Hilary Bambrick
Australia is fortunate to be one of few countries to remain free of BSE, the degenerative
brain disease in cattle that causes the deadly variant CJD in people. But the Free Trade
Agreement recently signed with the United States may change this. Despite Australian
Government assurances to the contrary, free trade agreements weaken Australia’s capacity to use quarantine to protect the safety of our food supply.
Throughout the recent trade negotiations, Minister Mark Vaile frequently said that
Australian quarantine was not ‘on the negotiating table’. Maybe not, but Australia
made several concessions to our quarantine system sought by the US.
In addition, our food standards are under constant fire from the World Trade Organization
(WTO). In theory, WTO member countries can set their own health standards on
imported foods. However,disputes between trading partners are being settled increasingly
in favour of the lowest common denominator. Minimum international standards are
fast becoming the maximum that any country can impose on imported food. Food
standards are driven downwards in the interest of increasing trade rather than protecting
Under the WTO rules, countries cannot invoke quarantine to exclude an import unless
they can prove a specific risk exists. Concerns over potential risks are insufficient, and
banning potentially dangerous imports is not considered scientifically justifiable.
But scientific knowledge is incomplete and uncertain, making precautionary action the
only way to protect public health. Science is always a work in progress, never a finished
masterpiece. Decisions on public health should not wait for the bodies to pile up.
When British cattle were fed the remains of sick sheep, BSE and its human health
dangers were unknown. Nevertheless, in 1966 Australia banned the importation from
Britain of any stock feed that contained animal parts, which later had the effect of
protecting Australia from BSE.
However, when Australia tries to adopt similar precautionary measures today, its actions are condemned by trading partners as restrictive trade practice. Australia’s ‘choice’ is either to accept potentially dangerous imports or face retaliatory action by trading partners. Several countries still feed sheep to cattle, proving that a practice that is internationally accepted can still be dangerous.
Despite everything we now know about the specific risks, testing cattle for BSE remains inadequate. Until last December, when their first case of BSE was confirmed, the US tested only 0.01 percent of all cattle slaughtered, and most of these were obviously sick. Now the US is increasing sampling ten-fold, to one percent.
The first US case may not be an isolated incident - two thirds of the cattle imported from Canada with the infected cow could not be traced. Furthermore, Canada says the cow was infected via stockfeed from the US. The cow that tested positive had not appeared to be ill and was tested because of an unrelated injury, after it had been declared fit for human consumption. Yet calls from Japan for the US to test all its cattle intended for human consumption have been branded by the US meat industry as ‘unscientific’.
The infective protein that causes BSE is extremely hardy, and is resilient to high temperatures and ordinary cleaning methods. Even hospital sterilisation is insufficient to destroy it. BSE’s resilience raises questions about the safety of ‘sterilised’ pet food, manufactured from slaughterhouse leftovers - materials that are particularly high risk. A few years ago Australia banned the importation of pet food from all countries except Canada, the US and New Zealand. Neither the US nor Canada can continue to claim BSE-free status, but Australia still accepts pet food from them.
Transmission of the disease via pet foods may be unlikely, but it is conceivable. Cats in the UK have been infected with BSE. Half of Australia’s households have at least one cat or dog, and most of these are fed manufactured pet food. Even if Fluffy or Rex don’t live long enough to develop the disease, millions of Australians have been handling their pets’ food, perhaps even using the same cutlery, or been lovingly licked by a tongue that just finished dinner. Under the US Free Trade Agreement, direct pressure to accept US imports is increased. Should Australia be compelled to accept beef products from a BSE-affected country that only samples 1 in 100 of their slaughtered cattle?
Australia’s cautious approach to quarantine should be recognised as best practice and minimum safety standards must not be treated as a ceiling. The BSE disaster provides an opportunity to learn from mistakes, but practices in the global marketplace still favour small short-term economic gains over major human health considerations.
Dr Hilary Bambrick is the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow with the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU. She has recently written a report entitled ‘Trading in Food Safety’, published by The Australia Institute.