THE federal government’s suspension of raw green prawn imports has altered the local market dynamics which could potentially see prices triple in retail seafood stores in coming months.
Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce intervened on the market last week to try and contain a devastating outbreak of white spot disease that’s been detected on prawn farms in Queensland’s Logan and Albert River region.
Mr Joyce says the disease isn’t dangerous to humans but is “very deadly to prawns” and imposed the ban to prevent the biosecurity threat spreading via raw prawns sold in retail outlets and potentially entering waterways when used as fish bait.
With the national prawn industry valued at about $360 million, Australian Prawn Farmers Association (APFA) president Matt West said the disease outbreak’s cost to prawn farmers in the impacted area could be about $25m, this year alone.
Mr West said he supported the ban that his industry had been long calling for, to help protect Australia’s clean and green reputation as a food exporter.
But John Fragopoulos - the managing director of FishCo Fish Market in Canberra - said the government’s suspension, which he opposed, created a catch-22 scenario.
Mr Fragopoulos said he wasn’t looking forward to the ban under which the public would “suffer” because it had the potential to force retail prices to double and even triple in weeks ahead, due to an altered supply and demand scenario.
He said customers at his various wholesale and retail outlets in Canberra were already coming in and buying-up raw green prawns due to a “fear” stock would “disappear” off shelves.
Stocks would remain available he said but prawn prices would surge due to tighter supply caused by the market’s loss of imported product from countries like Thailand, China, Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam and India which are becoming bigger suppliers.
Mr Fragopoulos said the current retail price for imported raw green prawns - medium to large size - was $20 to $25 per kilogram and a similar sized, locally-produced product was sold at just over $30 per kilogram.
“The ban is good for local prawn farmers as it creates a type of monopoly supplier situation but the imports also add important supply and competition to the market, which keeps the local prices down and makes the product more accessible to a broader range of consumers,” he said.
“Since the ban was announced last week, everybody has been getting concerned that prices will go up.”
Mr Fragopoulos said white spot disease was already in Australia and he doubted it could ever be fully eradicated but the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) should “vigorously attempt to try and restrict it”.
But he said AQIS needed to apply more “aggressive” testing regimes to potentially disease carrying imported seafood products like raw green prawns that can enter Australia from Asian countries.
He said the biosecurity watch-dog should enforce strict product testing on exporters and governments in the countries of origin and improve screening standards upon arrival in Australia.
AQIS only tests one in 20 consignments of raw imported prawns and that sample is selected randomly, which is an unreliable and risky method, he said.
“If the testing methods were tightened it would do more to protect local production from the disruptive business risks of catching diseases like white spot,” he said.
“Fines should be given out to those countries that export products into Australia with these diseases, to reduce the possibly of these viruses coming in here.”
Mr West said he was pleased by the government’s suspension last week but believed the underlying question was whether or not it was a case of “too little too late”.
He said there was a “hell of a lot of devastation” on the impacted prawn farms in Queensland’s Gold Coast region and the ban “doesn’t help their cause at all”.
“We’re not in a position where we’re stating that raw imported prawns are exactly where this disease has come from,” he said.
“It’s unknown at this stage whether or not it has come from there - it’s just one of the many risk pathways.
“But what I will say though, is we as an industry have been flagging that this is a potential risk pathway for many years and in our view it’s about time the federal government actually looked into it more seriously.”
Mr West said the APFA would be investigating potential support measures to help “fellow prawn farmers” but dismissed suggestions legal action was being pursued, to try and recover industry losses caused by the disease outbreak.
But he said at this stage, “first and foremost our entire focus is to try and get rid of this thing”.
“Our primary focus at this stage is to help government to do whatever we can to try and help drive down this disease because that’s our future – the immediate assistance is one thing but we all want a future,” he said.
“A third of our industry has just been destroyed through chlorination - that’s just the value of the product - but over 100 families have been affected by this and they’re scratching their heads wondering if they have jobs.
“This prawn farming industry supports a lot of families in that area and I know a lot of them personally and this is just heartbreaking.”
NSW sheep and grain farmer and retired federal Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan said the federal government had been repeatedly warned - including almost a decade ago - about potential biosecurity threats on raw green prawn imports.
Mr Heffernan said during his time in office, several political inquiries had raised red flags about the risks to Australia’s “clean and green reputation” in allowing such imports, including committee reports that recommended a ban on fresh seafood imports.
He said the situation was “exactly the same” as long-running warnings he’d raised about biosecurity threats to Australia’s cattle herd, by allowing fresh meat imports - like BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease) arriving via imported beef from the US and FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease) via Brazilian beef.
Mr Heffernan said those countries had an open border policy for trading cattle and unlike Australia did not employ full birth to death traceability systems.
He said Australia didn’t have BSE or FMD which delivered a market advantage - but prior warnings about white spot disease on raw green prawn imports and tougher country of origin labelling standards had been ignored, to the detriment of that industry’s trading reputation.
“I predicted this would happen in 2009 and now a lot of prawn farmers are under financial distress due to the blindness of governments of all persuasions,” he said.
“We won’t appreciate our status as a clean and green food producing nation until we lose it; now is the time to be on full alert.
“Let’s hope they do what’s right and not what’s politically convenient.”
Mr West said he backed Senator Heffernan’s firm biosecurity stance and that his Association had been saying, for many years, that a risk pathway was associated with raw green imports that needed to be addressed.
“We don’t want any of these potentially devastating diseases into our country,” he said.
“Australia was white spot free up until very recently - it’s not endemic - but it has arrived here somehow and it has been outlined before now that one of the risk pathways is imported green product that slips through the cracks.”
Mr West said his prawn farming business was in Queensland’s Mackay region and some distance in proximity from the region damaged by the white spot outbreak but the disease can spread rapidly, “especially if it gets hold in the wild”.
“At the moment the state government is doing a lot of surveillance work in that Logan River region and the aim, in going in hard and eradicating any ponds or farms and sites that are showing any disease, is all about driving the prevalence of this disease down so we don’t have it here – that’s the aim,” he said.
“If we can get that happening the rest of the industry will breathe a sigh of relief but for our friends and colleagues in that Logan River area, it’s devastating.
“I speak to them on a daily basis and it breaks my heart every time I talk to them.
“Our industry bends over backwards to comply with all of the OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) and environmental requirements and anything else that’s thrown at us, to make us clean, green and proud Aussies.
“But to spend all of that time and money just to get it destroyed by a disease that shouldn’t be here in the first place is just devastating.”
Mr Joyce said white spot disease was first detected in November and confirmed on December 1 - but he was made aware last week that it had been discovered on imported green prawns “that you buy in the shop for human consumption”.
He said he was concerned because people had a tendency to use prawns as bait meaning the disease could find its way into waterways and impact prawn farms.
One importer has already had their importation licence revoked and Mr Joyce’s department is also investigating other importers that have not followed importation protocols.
“I’m making sure that all in sundry are aware of this process and now we are doing everything in our power to make sure we deal with this and try and nip this in the bud,” he said.
“We are now chlorinating where those infected farms are, to try and remove the disease form there.”
Mr Joyce said rivers were also being dragged in the areas where the disease had been detected and out of 6000 samples had only found four prawns with white spot.
“Basically in the wild….at those numbers…it is not a viable virus and generally the prawns die and get eaten by fish, the ones that have white spot,” he said.
“None the less it is a major concern.
“Biosecurity is incredibly important to this nation and this is an incredibly important industry.
“What I can say to people, if you’re buying green prawns or you’ve bought green prawns from the retail outlets, please do not put them in a waterway or use them as bait; they are bought for human consumption.
“If you cook a prawn, it kills the white spot in any case.”
It’s understood the suspension will remain in place until the Director of Biosecurity is satisfied that the risk of prawns affected by white spot making their way into Australia is acceptably low.
Queensland Independent MP Bob Katter has also been a passionate and long-time advocate against the importation of seafood and in favour of more accurate food labelling legislation, in backing tougher biosecurity measures.
Mr Katter said he applauded Mr Joyce’s decision to ban raw green prawn imports having previously highlighted concerns with white spot disease but, “It's too late isn't it Mr Government?”
“The disease is already here - and it is devastating,” he said.
Mr Katter said a five per cent inspection rate on seafood imported into Australia was “a joke”, given products like prawns were caught in waterways in Asian countries where raw sewage also entered the system.