BIOSECURITY officials remain active in trying to detect the origins of an outbreak of white spot disease, which sparked a suspension on raw green prawn imports last week by Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce.
The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources issued a media statement today saying it was continuing to work collaboratively with the Queensland government to determine the source of the disease found at prawn farms in south-east Queensland.
Deputy Secretary Lyn O’Connell said media commentary suggesting a definitive cause of the disease outbreak had been found was not correct.
Ms O’Connell said the department continued to investigate how the white spot disease outbreak occurred, “but no definite link has been determined at this point”.
“We are still looking at a number of pathways that may have resulted in the white spot disease incursion in Queensland, including imported feed or probiotics, contaminated equipment, or even discarded uncooked prawns - or bits of prawns - that were purchased to eat,” she said.
“In the course of our investigations, the department did come across recreational fishers using imported prawns labelled for human consumption for bait in the Logan River.
“Subsequent testing of the product did return positive results for the virus.
“What this tells us is that fishers using infected imported prawns for bait is one possible pathway for this disease to get into our river system and onto prawn farms and is why prawns imported for human consumption should never be used for bait.”
The Director of Biosecurity suspended imports of uncooked prawns to ensure that pathway does not present an unacceptable risk to a currently vulnerable industry.
Mr Joyce has said white spot disease isn’t dangerous to humans but is “very deadly to prawns”.
The national prawn industry is valued at about $360 million while the Australian Prawn Farmers Association (APFA) president Matt West has estimated the devastating white spot outbreak would cost prawn farmers in the impacted area about $25m.
Mr West said he supported the ban on imported raw green prawns 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 - warned the suspension could see prices triple in retail stores due to tighter supply caused by the loss of imported product from countries like Thailand, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam and India.
Mr Fragopoulos was also critical of biosecurity inspection standards and called for tighter testing regimes and product to be checked, in the countries of origin.
A spokesperson for the department said today that Mr Fragopolou’s claims regarding the rate at which imported uncooked prawns were sampled, at one in 20 consignments, was incorrect.
The spokesperson said 100 per cent of batches of imported uncooked prawns - excluding marinated, crumbed and battered prawns and prawns sourced from recognised disease-free populations - were inspected and tested for white spot disease.
From each batch, 13 random samples are tested and each consisted of five prawns, the spokesperson said.
“The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) was an operational arm of the agriculture department until 2012,” the spokesperson said.
“All functions previously undertaken by AQIS are now performed by biosecurity officers with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.”