Prawn imports into Australia
This chapter considers the importation of prawns and prawn products into
Australia. It explores Australia's biosecurity obligations and the measures
undertaken following the outbreak of WSD to suspend prawn imports.
Appropriate Level of Protection
To protect against biosecurity risks, the Biosecurity Act provides
for an Appropriate Level of Protection (ALOP) for Australia. In accordance with
Australia's risk-based approach, this requires a high level of sanitary
(animal) and phytosanitary (plant) (SPS) protection aimed at reducing
biosecurity risks to a very low level, but not to zero.
The ALOP accords with WTO agreements such as the SPS Agreement, which
requires WTO members to maintain a level of protection appropriate to protect life
or health within their territory.
The SPS Agreement provides that biosecurity measures must be based on
either a risk assessment appropriate to the circumstances or drawn from
standards developed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Such
measures can only be applied to the extent necessary to protect human, animal
or plant life or health. Additionally, the measures must be based on science,
and must not arbitrarily or unjustifiably discriminate between WTO members or
be a disguised restriction on trade.
ALOP and impacts on international
Risk assessments are used to determine what SPS measures should be
applied to an import, to achieve Australia's ALOP. Each WTO member has the
right to determine its ALOP. However, the ALOP should aim to minimise negative
trade effects, and should not be more trade-restrictive than required to
achieve the ALOP's objective:
Under the SPS Agreement, risk management measures must not be
more trade‑restrictive than required to achieve ALOP, taking into account
technical and economic feasibility. In addition, WTO members are required to
apply the concept of ALOP consistently; that is they must 'avoid arbitrary or
unjustifiable distinctions' that 'result in discrimination or a disguised
restriction on international trade'.
Consistency in the application of ALOP means that the
Australia [sic] cannot, for example, be less restrictive to risk where imports
are desired, or more restrictive than necessary to manage the risk where trade
would create competitive pressure on a domestic industry.
The Aquatic Animal Health Code, produced by the OIE, details the
standards and processes required to ensure the safe international trade of
aquatic animals, including prawns and other seafood products, while avoiding unnecessary
Risks to Australia's trading agreements were highlighted following the
outbreak of WSD in Australia, and the decision to suspend the import of raw
prawns and prawn products. The Vietnamese Government claimed that the suspension
breached Australia's WTO responsibilities and exceeded necessary SPS measures.
The Seafood Importers Association of Australia argued that the suspension
damaged Australia's trade reputation.
DAWR has publicly acknowledged the impacts that the suspension may have
on trade and on international exporters. However, it argued that the suspension
complied with WTO agreements which allow member states to temporarily suspend
imports, in certain circumstances, and that the suspension would not be in
place any longer than necessary.
As the committee continues its investigation into the potential
biosecurity risks arising from imported seafood products, it will consider
Australia's international trade obligations, alongside the importance of
measures to maintain the desired ALOP in Australia. The committee recognises
the importance of finding the right balance between open and fair trade, and
protecting Australia's biosecurity, and will consider the implications of the
WSD outbreak on future trade responsibilities.
Import Risk Analysis (IRA)
In 2009, Biosecurity Australia (BA) released the Generic Import Risk
Analysis Report for Prawns and Prawn Products (the IRA). The IRA determined
The unrestricted risk associated with WSSV is...high.
The unrestricted risk exceeds Australia's ALOP and, therefore, risk management
is deemed necessary.
The IRA therefore considered the import of prawns and prawn products
into Australia, excluding live prawns. The IRA identified a number of
acceptable risk management measures, including sourcing all uncooked prawn
product from a country considered free of WSSV; removing the prawn head and
shell and testing all imported batches, and importing highly processed product
(like marinated or battered prawns).
The IRA also found that the likelihood of release of WSSV 'via the
unrestricted importation of non‑viable, farm‑sourced, frozen,
uncooked whole prawns intended for human consumption is estimated to be high'.
The IRA provided a tolerance for the presence of WSSV in Australia, but
at a low level, of no greater than five per cent. According to DAWR, this
level was not considered a risk, as it did not provide a sufficient viral load
for the disease to spread through susceptible hosts, and then into prawn farms.
An importer must obtain a permit to import all uncooked prawns and prawn
products for human consumption. The permit application must include clear,
labelled photographs, details of manufacturing steps and a complete ingredients
list totalling 100 per cent of product weight.
Under the IRA, if an importing country is free from pathogens, and
Australia has recognised that country as being free from pathogens, batch
testing is not required.
In terms of the importation of uncooked prawns or prawn product, there
are three possible options:
the uncooked prawns must be from a country or zone free from
WSSV, yellowhead virus (YHV) and Taura syndrome virus. In addition, the prawns
must be free of Necrotising hepatopancreatitis bacterium if the product is not
frozen (i.e. the product is chilled);
the uncooked prawns must have their heads and shells removed, be
frozen and each batch tested on arrival in Australia, and found to be free of
WSSV and YHV; or
the uncooked prawns should be highly processed, with the head and
shell removed, and coated in crumb or batter, wet or dry marinade, or processed
into products like dumplings or spring rolls.
The exporting country is required to certify that the uncooked prawns or
prawn products, including those that are highly processed, are fit for human
consumption, have been processed, inspected and graded in approved premises,
and are free from visible signs of infectious disease.
Packages of uncooked imported prawns that are not highly processed must
be labelled 'for human consumption only' and 'not to be used as bait or feed
for aquatic animals'. However, the IRA also noted that as this labelling would
not necessarily apply at the point of retail sale, the general public could be
unaware of these requirements.
The IRA stipulates that all prawn imports are to be held in quarantine
control for sample testing, where they remain until the test results are known.
Batches returning any positive results for disease will be re‑exported,
destroyed or cooked in an approved facility.
The IRA does note, however, that the efficacy of testing depends on the
availability of effective tests, the capacity of overseas authorities to
conduct testing off‑shore, and the maintenance of product integrity
throughout the chain of custody. Testing alone was not considered to reduce the
overall risk of disease.
Some importers can enter into an approved arrangement with DAWR,
allowing them to manage and operate cold storage facilities in accordance with
biosecurity requirements. All importers, regardless of having an approved
arrangement, must undergo an inspection of their product by biosecurity
While DAWR does not allow self‑assessment of product, there are
other arrangements in place whereby some importers do not need to present their
product, with what is known as 'seals intact'. This process means that:
upon export from an exporting country there is a seal applied
to the outside of a container which is intended to ensure that the contents of
the container are not tampered with.
WSD outbreak and import suspensions
While full investigations were underway in relation to the WSD outbreak
and its cause, the import suspension was triggered by three factors:
the actual outbreak of WSD in farms in the Logan River;
evidence that imported prawns intended for human consumption which
had tested positive to WSSV were being used as bait by fishers in the Logan
the high incidence of infected prawns available for sale in
retail outlets in the Logan River area.
On 4 January 2017, 14 out of 19 retail samples returned positive results for
DAWR explained that consideration of these three incidents led to the
conclusion that the biosecurity risk had elevated to a point sufficient for
trade to be suspended.
DAWR officials clarified that its awareness that some importers were acting in
a non-compliant way was not sufficient to impose the suspension. As Mr Tim
Chapman, First Assistant Secretary, Biosecurity Animals Division, DAWR,
explained, prior to the suspension:
when there was information that had come out of Operation
Cattai that there were white-spot-positive prawns that had evaded our border
controls and were for sale, that was an important issue for us. But knowing
that there are some prawns available for sale and knowing that some importers
appeared to be acting in a deliberately noncompliant way, that, in itself, is
not sufficient justification to say that the risk has changed and we would not
be able to suspend trade consistent with our SPS obligations.
From 9 January 2017, and for a period of six months, all uncooked prawns
and prawn meat (including that used for bait), and uncooked prawns and prawn
meat marinated for human consumption, were suspended from import.
In making the determination to suspend prawn imports, the Director of
Biosecurity noted that uncooked imported prawns (including prawn meat)
represent an 'unacceptable level of biosecurity risk'.
Certain prawn products were excluded from the suspension, namely uncooked
prawns and prawn meat sourced from New Caledonia;
highly processed prawn products (like dumplings and samosas), and breaded,
crumbed or battered prawns intended for human consumption.
Whether uncooked prawns could be distributed once reaching Australia
depended on a number of factors, including the date the product left the
country of origin or the date the product arrived in Australia:
if the product arrived in Australia on or before 8 January
2017, the goods were subject to new and enhanced inspections, including
'secure‑seals intact direction, 100 per cent inspection of the
consignment and sampling inspection and testing of all consignments'. Importers
could export the product if they did not wish to have it inspected
if the product arrived 9 January 2017 or later, it could
not be imported and was exported or destroyed at the importers expense. All
import permits for the suspended product were suspended as of 9 January
2017, until further notice.
The committee was advised that approximately 780 tonnes of prawns were
'on the water' and in transit to Australia when the initial suspension was
implemented in January 2017. This product was subject to enhanced testing and
as of 28 March 2017, 62 per cent of product had passed testing and was
released for sale; approximately 30 per cent had failed testing and
eight per cent was still to undergo testing.
All uncooked prawns and prawn product that was at the border or on the
water at the time of the suspension 'remains under biosecurity control until it
has been inspected, tested or exported'. Further:
The department has increased border inspections of some
permitted goods, such as breaded, battered and crumbed uncooked prawns to a 100
per cent inspection rate, and enhanced monitoring of other permitted products,
like uncooked prawns and prawn meat processed into dumplings, spring rolls,
samosas and other similar products.
DAWR explained that while the importation of certain products had been
suspended, there was already a considerable amount of seafood product,
potentially including infected prawns, still moving through distribution
channels across the country.
On 5 May 2017 DAWR advised stakeholders that the 'enhanced inspection
and testing regime for product that was in transit to Australia or had not
cleared biosecurity control when the suspension took effect is now complete'.
Exemptions from suspension
In making the original suspension determination, the Director of
Biosecurity noted that:
I am satisfied that existing import conditions are
insufficient to provide the high level of sanitary protection needed to reduce
the biosecurity risk presented by WSSV on imported uncooked prawns to a very
low level, in accordance with the ALOP for Australia. A temporary suspension of
the importation of uncooked prawns will allow for a review of risk management
conditions and compliance arrangements and for the results of that review to be
A number of amendments have been made to the original import suspension
of January 2017, to exempt certain prawn products from the suspension. DAWR argued
that the exemptions have resulted 'because stringent measures have been applied
to the importation of these prawn products including strict on‑arrival
testing and mandatory notification by trading partners of positive offshore
On 3 and 27 February 2017, the Director of Biosecurity amended the
suspension order and listed a number of products to be exempt from import
suspension, due to low or negligible biosecurity risks in line with Australia's
Products exempted from the import suspension included uncooked prawns
and prawn meat harvested within specific areas of Australia, exported to a
specific, approved processing plant in Thailand, and re‑exported to
Australia; imported for use in a laboratory or food sample analysis; and
irradiated bait for aquatic use, pet fish food and aquaculture feed.
The department confirmed to the committee that all prawns wild‑caught
in Australia and sent to Thailand for processing, were tested for WSD upon
re-entry into Australia. The processing plant in Thailand was decontaminated
prior to processing Australian prawns, and as of 28 March 2017, all
consignments returning from Thailand had tested negative for WSD.
On 3 April 2017 the Director of Biosecurity made a third amendment to the
suspension order, to exempt from the import suspension any wild-caught
Australian prawns processed overseas and re‑exported to Australia.
The third amendment determined that 'uncooked Australian wild‑caught
prawns exported overseas for processing, and re‑exported to Australia,
represent an acceptable level of biosecurity risk that meets Australia's ALOP'.
A number of other measures were implemented to limit biosecurity risks
for re‑imported prawns, such as:
conditions on import permits, including declarations from the
overseas authority as to the Australian origin of the prawns, and that the prawns
were segregated from non‑Australian prawns and other contamination
sources throughout transport, processing and storage;
exporting countries certifying that all batches of processed
uncooked prawns are free from WSSV and YHV, based on OIE testing methods;
overseas authorities notifying the department if positive test
results for WSSV or YHV arise from Australian prawn consignments, processed in
increased on‑arrival inspections and testing for WSSV and
YHV, and holding the product pending testing and inspection outcomes; and
for positive test results, ordering the product to be exported,
destroyed or treated, or, at the importer's request and expense, conduct a
retest at AAHL.
DAWR advised that it had contacted major trading partners including
China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam and confirmed with these exporting
countries that they could re-commence trade with Australia, provided updated
health certification requirements could be met.
On 15 May 2017 the Director of Biosecurity amended the suspension orders
for a fourth time to allow the import of uncooked prawns and prawn meat, which
has been marinated for human consumption. Imports of such product will be
allowed to commence eight weeks after the amendment is registered (mid‑July
The explanatory statement to the amendment notes that further assessment
was made as to the biosecurity risks of these products. The resulting
that those goods, where accompanied by a foreign country
health certificate and subject to inspection and testing on‑arrival,
represent an acceptable level of biosecurity that meets Australia's Appropriate
Level of Protection (ALOP).
The amendment states that uncooked marinated prawns, released from
biosecurity, will have an acceptably low prevalence of WSSV and YHV.
Additionally, the product will be sufficiently modified through processing to
'reduce their likelihood of diversion to unintended end-uses (bait, burley or
aquatic animal feed) to an acceptably low level'.
Other measures at the border, further to the foreign country health
certificate, will include increased on‑arrival inspections; 100 per cent
seals intact inspections, and an 'appropriate level' of on‑arrival
testing (being all batches tested with a sampling that provides
95 per cent confidence at 5 per cent prevalence).
Timeliness of suspension
DAWR has stated that it implemented the import suspension due to 'an
unacceptable level of [WSSV] in imported uncooked prawns in retail outlets'. It
was argued that these levels indicated that compliance with biosecurity risk
management conditions was not managing the risk to a level consistent with the
On 4 January 2017, DAWR formed the view that trade in uncooked prawns
and prawn product should be suspended, due to the increased retail prevalence
of WSD. The Minister for Agriculture, the Hon Barnaby Joyce MP, was briefed on
the issue on the afternoon of 5 January 2017, with the formal determination to
suspend trade made on 6 January 2017.
The Minister acknowledged that the department had failed to advise him
of the increasing detection of WSD for approximately six months.
A number of other stakeholders have argued that the import suspension was
implemented too late, and after WSD had taken hold in a number of Australian
DAWR argued that it would not have been possible to suspend trade any
earlier. As of 1 December 2016, the department was:
aware of non‑compliant activity but there was not
sufficient information at that stage to say that the level of risk had changed
sufficient for us to suspend trade. The key bit of information...was the
confirmatory test from AAHL which was received on 4 January that there were
white spot positive prawns available for sale in supermarkets in the Logan
The committee will continue to consider the efficacy and timeliness of
the import suspension, and the variations made to that suspension, as it
progresses its inquiry.
The committee is also interested to ascertain whether the chain of
communication between government officials and key industry stakeholders,
regarding information about the increased prevalence of WSD, was effective,
consistent and timely.
In addition, the committee will consider whether the import conditions
in place prior to the outbreak were adequate to address the risk of WSSV
Import biosecurity breaches
Assessing prawn imports
The IRA provides that industry or government employees physically
inspect imported prawns, using touch, smell and visual assessments. Prawns with
visible lesions or physical damage are rejected or diverted for further processing.
However, 'prawn processing lines usually operate at high speed, allowing little
time for detailed inspection'.
The IRA acknowledges that the prevalence and expression of prawn
infection can vary greatly between various countries or regions. Not all prawn‑producing
countries have active surveillance measures to look for prawn disease, and may
lack appropriate facilities and trained staff.
Additionally, the focus on prawn aesthetics and suitability for human
consumption means that quarantine risks from imported prawns may not be
Not all infected animals would be removed as infection may
not result in visible disease signs; and where obvious signs of clinical
disease are present, not all such prawns would be detected and removed. Even those
animals detected with lesions indicative of a pest or an infectious disease may
not be rejected if the pest or disease is not of concern to human health and
does not result in visible lesions that affect marketability.
DAWR has noted that 'inspectors we have at the border would not have
specialist knowledge in prawn diseases' but would select random samples from
each consignment to complete the border testing for WSSV and YHV.
Following the outbreak of WSD, DAWR appointed a group of biosecurity
officers to undertake inspections of prawn products, namely those products that
are crumbed, battered or breaded. The appointed officers have 'specific
knowledge and experience, which will assist with the provision of efficient
inspection activity and consistent assessment against the import conditions'.
DAWR detailed to the legislation committee its investigations into
seafood importers, for potential breaches of biosecurity regulations. It
advised that since the IRA, it has performed a number of investigations into
single incidents of non‑compliant behaviour.
DAWR informed the committee that in 2013, it became aware of:
independent testing which detected white spot disease in
prawns for sale at retail outlets in Australia which then resulted in an
investigation into possible washing or mislabelling of marinated prawns. As a
result, a number of marinated prawn consignments were rejected and re‑exported
and the conditions around importing marinated prawns were clarified with
DAWR launched further investigations in mid‑2016, following
evidence that some importers were 'allegedly circumventing inspection and
testing processes at the border'. These investigations aimed to stop illegal
activity and therefore prevent the spread of infectious disease into Australia,
but were not specifically related to the WSD outbreak.
DAWR detailed some of the methods believed to be used by importers to
evade biosecurity and quarantine controls. These include:
knowingly submitting clean product for testing and hiding product
that may be infected (as was done by the Sino seafood company);
providing empty consignments on shipments, including bags and
containers, to allow for product substitution;
deliberately mislabelling product so it does not require testing;
colluding with foreign prawn suppliers.
DAWR confirmed it was aware of instances where non‑compliant
importers were changing imported product from vannamei prawns to banana prawns,
and avoiding the seals intact requirements. Other efforts to avoid border
controls included importers using colour-coded and other markings on cartons to
help avoid disease testing of certain stock, by providing biosecurity officers
with 'good' prawns.
It was also claimed by DAWR that importers would:
pack empty boxes from the exporter coming into Australia.
They have got a big container full of prawns but there would be a few empty
boxes in there. Normally the prawns are in some sort of plastic bag so they
would put in a few empty plastic bags. Then at this end, the importer, before
our inspectors got there, was taking those empty boxes out with the plastic
bags and filling them with effectively prawns that did not have white spot
DAWR noted that one of the biggest challenges in dealing with the WSD
disease outbreak was:
the deliberate activities by some importers to substitute
prawns and to evade the controls. Much like other smuggled goods, it is very
difficult to detect deliberate smuggling, deliberate attempts to evade
controls, and that is where our concern is.
In March 2016, as part of its investigations, DAWR commenced Operation
Cattai. Operation Cattai was a result of information from various sources and
intelligence work. The operation sought to determine if importers were acting
in a non‑compliant way and thereafter collect evidence for prosecution.
Mr Wayne Terpstra, Assistant Secretary in the Compliance Division of DAWR
detailed to the committee the phases of Operation Cattai and what these
Phase 1 of Operation Cattai involved the purchase of a number
of prawn samples at retail levels. Those results came in and were confirmed on
24 June 2016... Phase 2 of Cattai was commenced on 1 August 2016. As new
consignments arrived in Australia, there were a number of targeted inspections
and, for those consignments that were not specifically targeted for an enhanced
Cattai-type enforcement response, we had our regular testing of product as it
passed through the border to determine whether there were white-spot-positive
prawns being presented for importation. There was no further retail testing
undertaken until the outbreak itself, but there was ongoing testing at the
border as product was being cleared.
As part of the investigation, prawns were purchased for testing from
retail outlets in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, in order to best determine
where non‑compliant importers may be distributing their product.
Prawns available for retail sale and infected with white spot were
detected between Melbourne and Brisbane. The white spot was detected 'either at
the point of sale through a purchasing assessment or through controls at the
border, where there appeared to be some subversion of departmental controls
taking place'. DAWR acknowledged that the Logan River may therefore be only one
of many locations where infected prawns were available for sale, and
potentially used as bait.
As part of its investigations into non‑compliant importers, the
department also surveyed recreational fishers in the Logan River area, over the
2016‑17 summer period. It was found that fishers were using imported
prawns meant for human consumption as bait. When tested by the DAWR, two of the
prawns tested positive for WSD. Prawns obtained from retail outlets in the same
area also tested positive for WSD. These results contributed to the decision to
implement the import suspension.
Departmental investigators became aware of the presence of infected
product in retail outlets, following positive tests results received on
24 June 2016. The positive WSD retail results obtained as part of
Operation Cattai helped to identify and actively target 25 out of 40 importers,
as part of the second phase of the operation, with 13 of those 25 importers
attracting a higher level of scrutiny and concern.
Operation Cattai has led the department to submit a brief of evidence to
the Department of Public Prosecutions, in relation to Chinese seafood importer
Sino. Action has also been taken against six importers whose approved
arrangements, permits and ability to import prawns has been removed.
At the time of their suspension, the six importers were responsible for an
estimated 30 per cent of the entire volume of prawn imports into Australia.
As part of its investigations, DAWR also examined the activity of
biosecurity officers at the border, and determined that some officers were not
following 'their work procedures'.
In particular, staff were being handed prawn cartons by importers from which to
select product for WSSV testing, rather than randomly choosing the carton from
a consignment. Thereafter, DAWR argued that it reiterated the proper procedures
to staff and implemented further training in areas such as prawn identification,
although no staff were dismissed.
Import suspension breaches
Soon after the implementation of the import suspension, the Minister for
Agriculture and Water Resources stated that some importers were knowingly
selling prawns infected with WSD. The importers were providing healthy prawns
for biosecurity inspection, while importing infected prawns that were not
Media reports have suggested that some importers into Western Australia have
been 'using technicalities' to circumvent the suspension conditions, and are
washing coatings, such as bread, crumb or batter, off the prawns after
importation. This allows importers to avoid the suspension, and to 'target the
bigger and more lucrative raw prawn market'.
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