Documents obtained by Guardian Australia revealed serious shortcomings in Australia’s monitoring of pesticide residues in food, especially food destined for the domestic market, nearly a decade ago.
Department bureaucrats expressed concern about food control in Australia as early as 2014, documents, obtained under freedom of information laws, show.
A five-year, $25 million pilot program for a national product control system was put in place in 2013, but was scrapped when the coalition came to power and Barnaby Joyce became minister. Results have not been released.
Testing of food sold in Australia is largely left to fresh food markets under a self-regulatory system. Generally, farmers are required to submit samples once a year. There is no routine inspection by federal or state health authorities or by Australian and New Zealand Food Standards.
Some food intended for export, notably meat, is being tested as part of the National Residue Survey (NRS), but documents obtained by Guardian Australia reveal that the department has identified shortcomings in this system as well.
Earlier this year, the administration hired a consultant to identify where data was missing.
The department has little information about the existence of agvet [agriculture and veterinary] The chemicals in the processed products are sold domestically within Australia,” says one of the documents released in April 2022.
“There is little data currently available to management regarding the human health or environmental fate of agricultural chemicals in Australia in ‘field’ conditions,” she says.
“The paucity of available ‘field’ data poses risks to the Australian government both in policy development and in international forums, when discussing the integrity and effectiveness of the Australian regulatory system.”
A spokesperson for the department said: “Bidding should not be taken to mean no or lack of oversight. However, monitoring is often done by these groups independently of each other, without national collaboration or consistent reporting practices.”
The documents also show how the government has no real idea of the impact granulated chemicals have on the environment and that work is required to not only collect data from state environmental authorities, but also independently conduct soil and water tests.
The final report of the independent review of the regulatory regime for pesticides and veterinary medicines in Australia two years ago recommended the establishment of an environmental monitoring program to detect levels of pesticides, parasites and antimicrobial drugs in the environment.
The spokesperson said the government is considering the recommendations for residue testing in the review.
Other documents reveal further concerns about the system, which covers only a limited number of products for export – especially meat products.
In documents, as of February this year, the department acknowledges that it is not in a position to verify the survey results that appear on its website because the actual testing is done by industry bodies using private labs.
In 2014, Greg Reid, then Assistant Senior Secretary in the Department of Agriculture, responded to a proposal to introduce more comprehensive residue testing of fish products for export.
“Agreed. Hard to believe without reliable residual scanning software. Keep it up.”
After 2014, however, monitoring declined as the broader empirical survey was abandoned.
In March this year, things came to a head, amid inquiries from the European Commission about Australia’s system and a requirement to provide details of Australia’s monitoring system.
“There is currently no formal requirement to participate in a control program recognized in the Export Control Rules (except for poultry through AS4465),” Anna Somerville, head of export controls, wrote in February.
The department currently relies on industry cooperation. Similar countries such as New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the member states of the European Union have national residue monitoring programs in many commodities.”
The Australian Livestock Board has also raised concerns about reputational risks to the Australian beef trade, citing instances of “non-tariff measures” being applied to Australian meat exports in ports around the world due to the discovery of offal.
In October 2021, its trade with Australian Country Choice was suspended in Brisbane after customs officials at the port of Ningbo found residues of the banned chemical chloramphenicol on beef products. It was one of 10 meat exporters whose licenses were suspended by China.
The Livestock Council said “a national, industry-wide safety regime that provides consistency of policy across the entire supply chain and ensures food safety and global consumer confidence in Australian beef has been a priority”.
The Department of Agriculture wanted to raise nearly $800,000 to design a new system.
The documents also reveal that the traceability system – which is used to find the source of contamination in exported meat – has problems.
“Current contractual arrangements between the NRS and jurisdictions require tracing investigations to be completed within 28 days of tracing initiation,” one document reads.
However, a review of the 285 remaining randomly selected breaches since 2014 found that only 34% of all trace investigations were completed within a 28-day time frame, with an average total time elapsed of 100 days and an average of 42 days.
“The time taken to complete these investigations is indefensible and requires correction,” the ministry said.
Asked about the delays, the ministry said tracing is the responsibility of the state and territory governments.
In February, the department called for expressions of interest from veterinary facilities to provide an assurance system for the NRS because it was unable to provide verification to trading partners on certifications offered by Australian producers.
The exhibitor will be required to dose the animals with known amounts of specific agricultural and veterinary chemicals that can cause problems in the meat and then collect tissue samples from the animals to identify the residues.
The results will be used to verify the performance of laboratories used by meat producers.
“As with all countries, Australia occasionally discovers remains that require attention,” the ministry said.
“In addition, importing countries sometimes detect residues in Australian exports that require investigation. Investigations into these discoveries have not indicated levels of concern for consumer health and, importantly, have determined that the residue was not due to illegal use.”