From the new Taste Australia brand to negotiations aimed at improving market access protocols overseas, the Australian horticultural sector and government are working hard to lift the country’s fruit and vegetable shipments abroad. But a key industry trade body is concerned about what a transition away from the offshore pre-clearance programme could mean for imports, and by the very nature of bilateral trade, exports too.
“I certainly see it presenting difficulties to our trade relationships,” says Australian Horticultural Exporters’ and Importers’ Association (AHEIA) CEO Dominic Jenkin.
Jenkin tells Fresh Fruit Portal the effects are already being seen from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’ (DoAWR) plans to withdraw from the industry-funded import arrangement.
He says a removal of the practice complicated imports of Chinese Ya pears last season, but soon the impacts will be seen for imports from New Zealand and the United States; two programs that account for around 75,000 metric tons (MT) or AUD$300 million worth of import trade.
The DoAWR is looking to withdraw completely from pre-clearance programs by 2019-20.
“What’s happened with the removal of that [for China] is that things that were potentially discovered upon detection and refused entry on pre-clearance are now being discovered in Australia,” Jenkin says.
“The complication is that if pests are discovered in Australia you’ve now got to wait for pest identification, and depending on the result, it may lead to reconditioning or treatment, re-export or the destruction of the consignment.”
He says that whilst treatments are not great for the product, they are fairly easily applied. But disease identification should pathogens be present can take a long time.
“We had occasions last year of product being held for 40 days awaiting pest identification,” he says.
“Last year there was a significant amount of product that was impacted.
To try and reduce the disruption to trade from the removal of offshore pre-clearance inspections for Chinese pears exported to Australia, AHEIA partnered with major exporters and importers to work on capacity building to ensure the fruit continued to meet Australia’s phytosanitary conditions.
“We undertook this project using grant funds supplied by DoAWR under their Agricultural Trade and Market Access Cooperation program. We undertook this work with an understanding of the shared responsibility and a desire to ensure the further development and prosperity of trade with China,” Jenkin says.
“It is under this project that earlier in the year AHEIA went to Vietnam to ready the import value chains for the upcoming market access for dragon fruit.”
Jenkin believes a real test for the new system will be how imports of New Zealand avocados fare this year.
“New Zealand avocados is a good example there – this is the first year that they’re going through the process of removing some pre-clearance capacity, so we will be seeing arrivals non-precleared out of New Zealand over the coming months,” he says.
Anecdotally, he says the association has seen an increase in the frequency of on-shore fumigation of product.
“There is a growing understanding by the department (DoAWR) that they understand that trade is both ways – it’s just a real challenge with this particular issue.
“They’re wanting to follow global trends towards managed pathways or systems-type approaches to managing risk, which are less resource intensive in terms of staffing, but seemingly that offer the same results.
“Part of the challenge for us is if you’ve got something there that’s delivering results for all sides, why should there be such a strong drive to move in another direction?”
He adds not only does pre-clearance programs help keep biosecurity risks offshore, which is a better defense for pest and disease mitigation, but they also put less strain on import processing capacity at home.
“I think there are going to be more and more problems that we’re going to be hearing about, just because the demand for services in Australia is going to increase significantly,” he says.
“The volume of product that came in through pre-clearance was vast, and now in the absence without the implementation of any managed pathways because they’re still being confirmed, it’s going to lead to a very big increase in demand in services both for quarantine premises and for the inspectors themselves.
“So industry’s taken up the challenge there – there’s big investments in all the major ports of arrival in improved premises, so more space for imports, more fumigation chambers, more inspection rooms, to be able to cope with this increase.
“But there remains a question mark as to whether the department is as readily prepared.”
Jenkin says the DoAWR has plans to further reduce the availability of inspectors by 2017-18, which will no doubt impact on New Zealand and the USA which account for 80% of Australia’s fruit imports.
“The majority of imported fruit from these countries has in past years utilized preclearance to varying degrees,” he said.
The move is toward a compliance-based inspection scheme, with three new schemes announced this year following a pilot for lemons and limes from the USA.
“Whilst Stonefruit and Cherries from USA scheme follow lemons and limes requiring 5 successful inspections to qualify for a reduced rate of 1 in 4 inspections, avocados from NZ require 10 successful inspections for a reduced rate of 1 in 2. This is unlikely to be workable for the importers of NZ avocados,” he says.