Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 18 October 2011
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
- Mr Michael Carmody, Chief Executive Officer
- Ms Sarah Major, National Manager, Trade Policy and Regulation
Senator RHIANNON: I have some questions about Customs. What actions have Customs taken to prevent any further dog fur pelts—and I am referring to Canis familiaris, not the so-called raccoon dog—from entering the country?
Mr Carmody: I will get our expert to advise you.
Ms Major: We have a range of approaches or activities that we employ to ensure that cat and dog fur does not enter Australia. Those strategies are based on, for example, information that we might receive from the public or from concerned companies that direct our targeting efforts. Where we have concerns about a particular consignment, we would arrange to have the consignment examined to determine whether those goods contained cat or dog fur.
Senator RHIANNON: When you say you receive information from the public, do you then go to the store that may be selling those goods and then follow through with the chain of supply?
Ms Major: It depends on the circumstances, but generally speaking if something is found in the domestic market but we know that those goods have been imported, we would work with the importer to determine whether those goods had breached the import control.
Senator RHIANNON: My question was specifically about the chain of supply. A member of the public would not understand all this. They have seen some goods in a shop that they are concerned about. You have inspected them and determined that they are dog fur. Do you then speak to that business, ascertain where they purchased them from and follow that back through? Could you provide that detail?
Ms Major: Where we have an allegation of cat or dog fur, we would normally approach the importer in the first instance. We would ask them to present documentation to us to verify the details of where that has been imported from, what the particular product is constituted from and any commercial information that we thought was necessary to examine that issue. If we had reservations about whether the product contained cat or dog fur, we could then ask that company to have that product tested by an appropriate expert. Depending on the results of that testing, we would take further action.
The records since 2007 show that we have had 19 referrals in relation to 17 instances regarding cat or dog fur. In some of those instances, the goods have been destroyed where the importer has not been able to provide sufficient evidence to reassure us about the origins or the nature of the fur. In other instances, those goods have been released—for example, where the laboratory testing has indicated that they were not dog fur.
Senator RHIANNON: You made the comment that you approach the importer in the first instance. I go back to the example from the public because that is how a lot of the examples come to us. In the first instance, would it be that you would have to approach the seller, the retailer, of those goods to find out who the importer is?
Ms Major: In some instances that would be right, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: How would you find out who the importer is otherwise? Are you saying you already know who the importers are of most of these good so you do not need to ask the retailer? I am trying to understand how it works because we are getting so many complaints about this.
Ms Major: In some cases the importer is the retailer and they have agents who work on their behalf. In other cases, where the retailer is not the importer, we would discuss with the retailer who is acting on their behalf in terms of bringing the goods into Australia. Using that information we would interrogate our records to allow us to look at what shipments might have come through at what times and where they have been distributed to, for example.
Senator RHIANNON: In response to an earlier question, you said you would ask for the product to be tested. Does that mean the retailer or the importer is obliged to do that when you make such a request? If so and they do not do it, what happens?
Ms Major: Customs has the authority to ask the importer to have the goods tested where we have concerns about the nature of the fur in a garment or in a pelt that has been imported. That testing is conducted at the expense of the importer. If they refuse to have that testing done and we have reasonable grounds on which to believe that the particular goods contain prohibited fur—as you say, domestic dog fur—then we would generally arranged to have those goods seized. The person that we seize them from can seek to claim them back. If they do that, we would go before a court and present our information about why we believe that they have breached the import control. Generally the experience to date has been that, where seizures have occurred, those goods have subsequently found not to be dog fur and they have been released. In others, they have been abandoned and the goods have been destroyed.
Senator RHIANNON: I understand following an investigation by the Humane Society International that there was no person within Customs who can identify dog fur. Have Customs staff now been retrained so they can identify a fur pelt sourced from Canis lupus familiaris?
Ms Major: Customs officers are not experts in assessing fur and the nature of fur contained in a garment. We do not do that ourselves. Where we have concerns we refer the fur for testing or examination by another authority.
Senator RHIANNON: In one of those tests carried out recently, was it found that there were high levels of hexavalent chromium in those fur pelts?
Ms Major: That is not correct.
Senator RHIANNON: Did you find there was any chemical contamination?
Ms Major: The laboratory results that have been provided to us by HSI indicate that there was hexavalent chromium in a particular sample that was tested. The expert advice that we have from a number of government agencies is that the levels of hexavalent chromium in those garments were unlikely to be a risk for anything other than contact dermatitis.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering hexavalent chromium is classified as a class 1 human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer and it is reported that it is regularly used in dog fur pelts sourced from China, is this an issue that your office is paying attention to, particularly in the context of occupational health and safety for Customs officers?
Ms Major: It is certainly an issue which we have paid very serious attention to, not so much in terms of our officers, but perhaps I can elaborate. My understanding from the expert advice we have received from both Safe Work Australia and from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is that although hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen its cancer-causing properties, if you like, occur when the dust is inhaled or ingested. In this case, the hexavalent chromium is a residue in the garment because of a treatment during the tanning process and the expert advice that we have received from those outside agencies is that the risk is around leaching into the skin through sweat. We have also had advice that the residue amounts in the particular products tested were at a low level and it was unlikely to cause anything other than contact dermatitis. The ACCC has advised us that they have no record of an adverse reaction in relation to this particular product. In addition, there is no prohibition on items coming into Australia with hexavalent chromium in them.
Senator RHIANNON: I understand that there was a recent report, possibly a government report, on the testing of Witners and Myer products. Will you table that report?
Ms Major: Those reports are the property of the importers, in that case the two particular companies. We have seen the results but they are not our reports.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that a follow-on from that earlier explanation that you gave that it is the responsibility of the retailer or the importer to undertake the test?
Ms Major: We can certainly direct that they undertake those tests. In those two cases, my understanding is that both retailers undertook those tests voluntarily and shared the results with us.
Senator RHIANNON: How are you confident of the integrity of those tests if the company that is involved in importing the fur pelts are the ones responsible for organising the test and then showing you the report?
Ms Major: I do not think we are in a position to adjudicate over the laboratory results; however, we did review the results. They were very comprehensive analysis reports. All of the test reports, including those provided by HSI, qualify their conclusions by saying that microscopic testing of animal fur is not an exact science. We examined two tests that were undertaken on behalf of those companies. One was undertaken by the Centre for Forensics Studies at the Canberra University, which is a very well regarded laboratory and is used by Customs in, for example, testing in some of our narcotics areas. The other was undertaken by the CSIRO, who I understand HSI has used previously themselves.
Senator RHIANNON: The information I have received about that report is that it actually discounts the findings of Hans Brunner, who I understand is the world's leading expert on mammalian hair identification. Considering that we have such conflicting advice, shouldn't this information be made public because it appears that there is no easing up on this trade in dog fur pelts coming to Australia.
Ms Major: Our examination of the reports indicated that there was no evidence to suggest that the goods that had been imported were in fact dog fur. As I say, we are not in a position to adjudicate between the experts, and the reports are not our property.
Senator RHIANNON: In terms of launching an investigation into these illegal products, would you consider it or are you asserting that in fact there is not enough proof that they are illegal.
Ms Major: In order to be able to seize and destroy goods or to stand before a court we would need to have very solid evidence that the goods were in fact prohibited items. In this case we do not have, in our view, sufficient evidence to indicate that the goods are in fact dog fur and are therefore prohibited items.
Senator RHIANNON: One final question: is it that they are not dog fur or are they what is often called 'raccoon dog', which I understand is not illegal?
Ms Major: If I recall the test results correctly, it is a combination of both. In some cases there is a suggestion that some of the elements may have been raccoon dog, which is not an illegal pelt, and in other cases that the fur in fact was rabbit or musquash.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.