Government flip-flop on beef imports

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 9th March 2010

After initially announcing that the ban on beef imports from BSE-affected countries would be repealed, the government has backflipped, with Agriculture Minister Tony Burke yesterday announcing that any change in the standing import policy on beef would come only after a lengthy analysis of beef exports.

Vocal opposition by Liberal, Greens and independent senators appears to have led to the reversal of the decision. Despite expert opinions that US beef is free of BSE, the opposition maintains it’s vital to protect Australians from even the slightest possibility of infection.  Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or ‘mad cow’ disease) was responsible for around 170 human deaths from its human strain, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in the late 1990s.  Prevention of BSE is now well understood in the beef industry worldwide.

The Australian beef industry appears divided on the subject, with some warning of a drop in consumer confidence as a result of the lifting of the ban, and others finding the same problem in the opposition protests.

US beef imports to Australia, before the ban, amounted to only 40 million tons, and ABARE estimates suggested that these imports amount to less than half a percent of domestic beef production.

While the US exporters expressed disappointment in the decision, their small stake in the Australian market means the blow is minimal; however, this is a backwards step in their attempt to shed their BSE status – a label which has cost them dearly in the Japanese beef market.