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Estimates: Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee: Agriculture and Water Resources Portfolio: Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 21 Mar 2018

Tuesday, February 27

Market access for kangaroo products

Senator RHIANNON: I have some questions about kangaroo products in relation to overseas and local markets. What are you telling your trading partners with regard to kangaroo exports—and also local markets— with regard to the mass mortality events that have been occurring in kangaroo populations since 2016?

CHAIR: I didn't hear the last part of your question. I'm interested in this obviously.

Senator RHIANNON: I'm interested in what the department's telling trading partners—but not just overseas, within Australia as well—about the mass mortality events that have occurred among some kangaroo populations since at least 2016?

Mr Quinlivan: There are two separate questions there. Firstly, what we know about mass mortality events and, secondly, what we might be saying, if anything, about that to trading partners. I think the first question really needs to go to the acting chief vet. Those questions are biosecurity in the next group.

Senator RHIANNON: It was very much in the context of market access?

Mr Quinlivan: I understand that, but it's important to understand what we know about mass mortality events before you consider the question of what we might be communicating to others about it.

Senator RHIANNON: Can we proceed?

Mr Quinlivan: I think she's coming.

CHAIR: We're waiting on the witness to come around.

Senator RHIANNON: I apologise.

Senator COLBECK: Can you tell me why so many officials are limping today?

Dr Martin: I'm not limping.

Senator COLBECK: I noticed that, but I have noticed that a few are! Dr Martin: They would in sympathy!

Mr Quinlivan: Just for Dr Martin's benefit, the question was what do we know of the mass mortality events that are being reported for kangaroos? And then there was a secondary question about what if anything we're saying about that to our trading partners? The first one is an important technical question.

Dr Martin: We are aware of reports of mortalities of kangaroos in New South Wales, and we have spoken to our colleagues in the New South Wales department. They haven't had any particular reports about that. There have been some mortalities which they consider are due to drought, so there have been those issues. There haven't been any fresh carcasses that they can get to examine, so they've asked people, if they see recent mortalities, to notify them. Certainly, they consider that from time to time these events occur and there have been these incidents in the past.

Senator RHIANNON: I'll come back to the market access to establish how all this works for you in terms of who takes responsibility. Who bears the current and future health risk for the consumption of any untested bush meat—untested kangaroo meat? Is it the federal government, for approving the exports, the exporters or the shooters? What is the chain of responsibility?

Senator Ruston: You just said 'untested'. Are you suggesting we're exporting—

Senator RHIANNON: There is untested meat that goes into the market.

Senator Ruston: I think we might talk about the testing.

Dr Cunningham: All kangaroo processing establishments that are exporting meat are registered with the department, and they must comply with food safety measures under our Export Control Act and with the Australian standard for the hygienic production of wild game meat for human consumption. As part of all that, there is a microbial testing requirement, and we have our Microbiological manual for sampling and testing of export meat and meat products. This is applied to all meat that is processed for export.

Senator RHIANNON: But there's the situation that's known about of Russia banning meat. I thought some of that was because it was coming from untested sources and the hygiene levels were quite poor.

Dr Cunningham: In the case of Russia, in 2014 there were a number of port-of-entry detections at the Russian end. There is one plant that is registered to export to Russia. It's not suspended because of those port-of-entry detections; it's because of the requirement to audit on a regular basis and the administrative difficulty of getting an audit done by the Russian audit teams.

CHAIR: Sorry, Senator Rhiannon; I want to watch this closely. The impact on the exports to Russia was not cited as being a contaminated product?

Dr Cunningham: That's not the reason that's been put to us as to why that establishment is not able to export. It's because it requires an audit and an audit hasn't been conducted. Mr M Thompson: The ball is in the Russian court in terms of doing it.

Senator RHIANNON: But you're saying that the Russians didn't—they've suspended twice, haven't they?

Mr M Thompson: Only once that we're aware of.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that it wasn't because of the health reasons with regard to the meat standards?

Dr Cunningham: That's correct. Typically, importing countries will have their own microbiology testing programs as well. What happens is, if meat is exported from Australia and it's not detected here but is detected there, we conduct an investigation and find out what went on. It doesn't typically result in a suspension, particularly for some microorganisms like E.coli—when a product is cooked, the food safety risk is very minimal.

Senator RHIANNON: My understanding—although I don't have the numbers—is that you've confirmed before that kangaroo meat is not tested for most of the zoonotic pathogens that this meat can carry. E.coli and salmonella contamination, as we know, continues to be found in the meat by importing countries. Is that what you're referring to?

Mr M Thompson: In the case of Russia, I think what Dr Cunningham said was that they have some very specific microbiological requirements and there were some detections back in 2014. But the advice we have here is that it didn't lead to the suspension of the establishment. What that would normally lead to, as Dr Cunningham said, is a review and an audit. There was a requirement for an audit from the Russian side—tell me if I'm wrong here, David—and that hasn't been undertaken by the Russians yet.

Senator RHIANNON: But there's been a period of time when it was suspended, though, wasn't it?

Mr M Thompson: It's still suspended. That's right.

Dr Cunningham: It's suspended—

Senator RHIANNON: Because of the pathogens that they found—

Mr M Thompson: No. The two are coincidental, but they're not linked.

Senator RHIANNON: Well, I mean, that's what the Russians say. Mr M Thompson: It's not our advice, Senator.

Dr Cunningham: In the case of Russia—

Senator RHIANNON: It's not your advice from Russia or it's not your advice from your people?

Dr Cunningham: In the case of Russia and other importing countries, many require a periodic audit of establishments to maintain the listing to export to that country. It just so happens that in this case that audit hasn't happened, as has been the case for a number of Russian establishments, for reasons beyond food safety.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. I'll just go back to the issue about the mass mortality events. Are you aware of the reports from Dr Curran, a previous government vet?

Dr Martin: I have seen the newspaper reports where he was cited.

Senator RHIANNON: And, from what I understand—

CHAIR: Has it been established that there have been mass mortality events? Have we had a crime scene and has someone seen 100 kangaroos every 10 feet, and established—

Senator RHIANNON: We don't need a Queensland police officer investigating the kangaroo force!

CHAIR: I'll tell you what we don't need: you coming in here and affecting this industry by reading newspaper reports.

Senator RHIANNON: I've got a right to ask these questions!

CHAIR: I've asked a question. Stand down! Dr Martin, has it been established?

Dr Martin: There have been some mortalities reported, but these have occurred from time to time.

CHAIR: What does that mean? There are 10,000 kangaroos killed between Quilpie and Birdsville every night—every night, right?

Dr Martin: Yes.

CHAIR: I'm interested in how we get to describe an event that is regarded as a mass mortality. Is that the language you would use, based on any scientific assessment of an accumulation of bodies of kangaroos?

Dr Martin: The information that we have from the New South Wales department is that they have been notified of some mortalities, but I don't have a sort of figure and they don't have evidence to show that there's a disease causing this. As you are aware, because of drought and for various other reasons you do get events where a number of animals can die.

CHAIR: Is it fair for anybody to describe that we're having events of mass mortality? You understand that language, as a scientist?

Dr Martin: Yes. But I haven't had information from New South Wales DPI, who are the agency and who work closely with their environmental colleagues, that there have been, I guess, 'mass mortalities'. However, they are, obviously, investigating this and so—

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon may assist us with her further questioning by referencing what she's relied upon to make the call of mass mortality. Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: Dr Curran, a former government vet, has said:

… the implications are concerning not just for the kangaroo meat industry, but the meat industry in general.

He said that the cause of death is a disease; it's not a lack of food, or plant poisoning, or parasites, or genetics or any identifiable virus or bacteria. Are you aware of those comments from Dr Curran, and do you have any further information about this issue of the mortality at different times amongst kangaroo species?

Dr Martin: I have seen the newspaper report. That's the only information I have. However, as I mentioned, we have communicated with our colleagues in the New South Wales department and they do not consider it a disease event. But they have asked to be notified where there were recent kangaroo deaths so that post-mortems and appropriate samples can be taken.

Senator RHIANNON: So, just to understand who bears the responsibility, for meat being exported, do you rely on advice from the New South Wales relevant department?

Mr Quinlivan: I think we answered that question just before, Senator—exactly that question. We've been over that—just a few minutes ago.

Senator RHIANNON: Well, can you repeat it, please?

Mr Quinlivan: Yes, Dr Cunningham explained.

Dr Cunningham: It might be worth explaining a little what happens at the kangaroo harvest before meat is processed. Animals are shot. They're not animals that are lying dead from a mass mortality event, if that's what happened. They're shot and, under the code of practice, the stomach and intestines are examined in the field. The rest of the internal organs remain with the carcass, and they're inspected by a vet at the processing facility. So there are a number of health checks along the chain before we get to the microbial testing we talked about in our previous answer.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you seriously saying every kangaroo's tested and its intestines are looked at and it's examined in the way you just described?

Dr Cunningham: Every carcass is checked, as I understand it, at a processing facility.

Senator RHIANNON: In that way? Seriously? You're saying every carcass is tested in that way. There's just so much evidence from shooters—

CHAIR: Hundreds of thousands of cattle—the same thing every day. Vets and specialists are doing the same thing.

Senator RHIANNON: I think the department should be allowed to answer it, Chair. So every carcass is examined in that way.

Dr Cunningham: So the animal is shot in the field and the carcass is dressed to remove the stomach and intestines, and, when it arrives at the processing facility to be processed into meat, it's examined by a vet.

Senator RHIANNON: So, in terms of the standards for export, it's the federal government taking responsibility.

Dr Cunningham: For an export registered establishment.

Senator RHIANNON: Right. Therefore, you haven't considered putting in any resources to identify what is the cause of these periodic mortality events.

Mr Quinlivan: I think what Dr Martin said earlier is that her counterparts in New South Wales, which is the jurisdiction where this is reported to be happening, are actively investigating this, but they, at present, mostly have evidence related to mortalities in drought affected areas. But they're keen to get some evidence from the kind of mortality events that you're talking about, but they just don't have it yet, if I can summarise your evidence so far.

Dr Martin: Yes. That's correct. Obviously, if they get some fresh samples from these mortality events, they can look to see if any diseases can be identified. But at this stage they don't have any evidence of a disease being the cause of mortalities.

Senator RHIANNON: Just going to your point, Dr Cunningham, I wasn't suggesting that they were harvesting the animals that have died in any mortality event. But, if you read about what happens to the kangaroos in these mortality events, sometimes there are dead kangaroos and there are alive kangaroos—they're just very lethargic, moving slowly et cetera. So it would seem that it would be possible for those kangaroos to be shot. So (1) do you agree that that's a possibility and (2), considering there are these mortality events that have been recorded, are there any new tests being brought in to try and ascertain why these periodic mortality events, that I think even our chair isn't denying happen periodically, are occurring?

Mr Quinlivan: I think I'll refer that question back again to the chief vet, because it's a technical question not a trade transaction related matter.

Dr Martin: Senator, again, it's New South Wales DPI who take the lead with investigation into any mortalities and, as I said, at this stage they don't have any evidence that a disease is involved. But, if they get notified of disease events and they can get samples that are fresh, because you need fresh samples, then samples can be tested to see if any diseases can be identified.

CHAIR: I've got some questions about kangaroos now.

Senator Ruston: For Senator Rhiannon's benefit, I've just received advice from one of Australia's most respected kangaroo processors to say that he will provide Senator Rhiannon, tomorrow morning, with a very detailed explanation of everything that takes place in their laboratory before any of their animals are exported, and the whole process through which their animals are dealt with from the field to the point of export.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Will that come through estimates?

Senator Ruston: I'm more than happy to make it available to anyone, but we'll provide that information for you and he said he'll make sure it's a very detailed explanation. Obviously, they're watching you tonight.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. They look after their industry.

Senator COLBECK: It's nice to have a fan club.

Senator Ruston: I don't know about being a fan club.

Senator RHIANNON: Or a shooting club!

Senator Ruston: I think they're probably just protecting against Senator Rhiannon's behaviour next week when she goes to Europe and making sure she doesn't tell any untruths.

Senator RHIANNON: I think, as the senator has mentioned going to Europe, it would be very good for everybody to watch the movie Kangaroo: A love-hate story. I think it might reflect on some of the—

Senator Ruston: Yes.

CHAIR: I'm still waiting for you to take up my invitation to bring the new car out to Ilfracombe for a time so we can take a run up to Longreach at dark and see how it goes.

Senator RHIANNON: I actually don't have a new car.

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