1996 January: Moree Cattle Contamination. Pesticide detected: Chlorflurazuron, Endosulfan

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Beef’s Image Takes A Hiding

Sydney Morning Herald Saturday January 20, 1996

DAVID PASSEY

Australia’s beef exports took a double blow this week as the US claimed our meat testing was deficient, and pesticide residues were found in some beef. DAVID PASSEY reports.

NOT long after dark, on the evening of December 6, the phone rang at Bill Coote’s cattle property, 20 kilometres west of Moree. He had been expecting the call from his stock agent, but not the bad news. “Mate, we could have a problem with those cattle you sent in. It looks like chemicals – again.”

Coote said nothing. Just 14 months earlier, residues of a cotton chemical, Helix , had forced his herd into quarantine and cost him $80,000. The prospect that his cattle might again face chemical contamination seemed unbelievable.

But, as the fax began to whistle early the next morning, chemical analysis from the abattoir spelt out a new disaster: 25 of his cattle were to be condemned for exceeding the maximum residue limit of endosulphin , the active ingredient in an unrelated but widely used crop spray.

“It was an awful feeling,” said Coote. “I kept thinking, ‘once, maybe, but surely not twice’. What was so utterly frustrating was that I knew damn well we hadn’t used that chemical and I knew another quarantine situation would crucify our cash flow.”

Coote’s revelation was a warning that things could again be about to go badly wrong for the cattle industry.

Helix contamination of Australian beef in October 1994 sent export markets into a panic after the United States, Japan, Canada, Taiwan and Korea impounded 60,000 tonnes of meat for testing.

Authorities in Australia were forced to quarantine more than a million cattle in NSW and Queensland after cotton trash, treated with Helix and thought to be safe fodder, was found to be the culprit. Japan took Australian produce off the supermarket shelves and our reputation as a clean and green producer was in jeopardy.

After the release of the beef and $3 million spent on promotion to shore up our image, the $3-billion annual export trade was again beginning to look secure. The last thing Australia needed was another chemical scare.

But now, 23 properties in NSW have been placed under quarantine for excessive levels of endosulphin sulphate. Tests have detected the chemical in 30 more herds and abattoirs have destroyed more than 100 contaminated carcasses.

NSW Agriculture is unsure how many could be affected.

No-one is certain where Coote’s problem came from. Neighbouring farms were known to use the endosulphin sprays and NSW Agriculture said spray drift was a likely cause.

“I’m not going to say it was spray drift,” Coote said. “But the fairies didn’t bring it.”

The environmental director of the Australian Cotton Foundation, Harvey Baker, put the industry on red alert and stepped up research programs into endosulphin’s chemical effects. He is not taking responsibility, but neither is he denying it.

So far, the problem remains on-shore, with contaminated beef yet to escape the residue-testing net. NSW Agriculture says endosulphin will not be the crisis Helix became because the chemical clears cattle in six weeks, much faster than Helix.

But it is yet another signal that our now sensitised export markets did not need to hear. And it comes in the week that a new and potentially much more damaging problem has been uncovered in the Australian beef processing industry.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has put Australia on notice that, unless serious flaws in our meat inspections and chemical testing systems can be addressed by the February 8 deadline, the US will halt our $1 billion beef trade.

USDA inspections of 30 Australian abattoirs late last year found standards at six meatworks “unacceptable” and they were barred immediately from the right to export to the US, pending improvements. Another eight were deemed to be “marginally unacceptable”.

A TERSE letter of notification, sent to the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) and obtained by the Herald, accused the industry of “large-scale non-compliance” with US requirements. It said the inspector found “significant deficiencies in residue-testing laboratories used by the Australian meat inspection system”.

Crisis meetings between industry and the Government began last week, as experts scrambled to avert what the Cattle Council of Australia said would be the worst disaster to hit the Australian industry yet.

AQIS has moved fast to meet the four key demands set down by the US. These include an in-depth investigation into the causes and events leading to non-compliance, specific action at faulty plants, an action plan to avert future repetition, and the correction of deficiencies in all residue-testing laboratories.

“We are seriously concerned,” the acting executive director, Brian McDonald, said in an interview with the Herald. “The report does indicate they have found serious difficulties and it is indicative of problems in laboratory systems in Australia.

“But there is no doubt we will satisfy the US requirements by deadline. This is not a crisis and we are confident our international markets will not react to what are specific problems at specific plants.”

But McDonald did concede that the industry had “endemic problems” and that some of the faults had the potential to harm hygiene and product quality if they were not tackled.

While he would not divulge the specific nature of the problems, he stressed that all Australian beef was safe for consumption and said consumers here and overseas should not be alarmed. Four of the six unacceptable plants were already back up to standard, he said.

Out in the paddock, an air of disquiet has descended upon farmers, who believe they are producing the world’s best and cheapest beef in the cleanest of environments, only to have their efforts compromised by issues over which they have no control.

They see the set of events as a trifecta that has the potential to undermine Australia’s credibility and drive buyers to the cheaper, emerging beef suppliers of South America.

“Add together Helix, endosulphin and the abattoir problems and we have got a big image problem,” said Errol Rush, a Boggabri cattle farmer who was badly burnt by Helix. “Put it this way, if I was an overseas buyer, I’d be looking elsewhere.”

Farmers wincing under the pressures of drought and chemical contamination are beginning to point a legal finger at those they say are to blame. They have started a class action against Federal and State governments, and the ICI chemical company.

At stake is an estimated $125 million worth of damages. The solicitor undertaking the campaign on a no-win, no-pay basis, Peter Long of Gunnedah, says he is also preparing a case on endosulphin, which he expects to lodge in two months.

At the heart of the accusations is the alleged failure of the National Registration Authority for agricultural and veterinary chemicals (NRA) to label pesticides adequately. With both endosulphin and Helix, the NRA was forced to change labels and give stricter instructions.

But the NRA disputes any negligence. It argues that the knowledge of chemical effects is constantly changing and that its job is to respond to changes as new information becomes available.

Every time a new issue hits the headlines, the president of the Cattle Council of Australia, John Wyld, is forced off his cattle property in western Victoria and on to the phone. Farming, he says, is easier.

“The issues are all very serious, no doubt about it, but they are also manageable. The US threat to cut our trade is the most serious issue our industry has faced. But we will fix it – the consequences if we don’t are just too catastrophic.

“The main thing is to keep all these issues in perspective and deal with them fast and efficiently. We have to be very conscious of our image, when reality and logic tend to go out the window. We can’t have any more residue issues and we must fix the meatworks.”

Wyld says the US is not picking on Australia, but reacting to internal political issues.

“Over the past 18 months the US has had a spate of food-poisoning deaths – nothing to do with product quality and everything to do with handling and cooking problems. But it has become a huge emotive issue over there, and that is the background to the tough tests they are imposing on exporters everywhere in the world.”

But even in the face of adversity, Wyld does not give Australia’s meatworks a clean bill of health. He says poor practice is entrenched in some areas and the “big stick” approach of AQIS and the USDA is doomed to fail.

“What we need is a massive culture shift, and that means labour market reform. Until workers get incentives to perform well, they will take short cuts. It’s like the speeding motorist and the policeman. If the coppers are not around, the motorists will speed.”

But while many growers are looking back over their shoulders, trying to divine blame for past events, some realise that future performance is the key to industry credibility.

Dominic Osborne, a cattle grower at Bungendore, near Canberra, is the chairman of a new Cattle-Care program, designed to drill quality assurance into every step of on-farm production.

“Look, these events have alarmed and horrified worried growers,” Osborne said. “The signals being sent to all markets are bad news. But I am confident we can tidy our act.

“Even as these problems are upon us, we must secure the future. Australia has one of the toughest environments on earth and for us to win the trade battles we must produce the cleanest and best beef around. That will not happen without rigid strategies.

“Once we do that we can expect it of the entire beef production chain. It is crunch time; we must get smart with our management and marketing. Only that will secure the future.”