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Australia Announces Ban on Imported Raw Shrimp

White spot disease: prawn farmers say import ban too late

At least one importer may face face criminal charges as producers point to biosecurity report of 2009 that warned of high risks

Australia’s $360 million prawn industry could be hit hard if the white spot disease takes hold in the country. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

Friday 6 January 2017 20.09 ESTLast modified on Sunday 8 January 2017 14.14 EST

A prawn importer suspected of deliberately evading biosecurity controls to bring infected produce into the country is expected to face criminal charges as authorities try to contain a white spot disease outbreak in Australia.

But prawn producers say the indefinite import ban has come too late: the government’s own agricultural quarantine agency, Biosecurity Australia, warned six years ago that the risk of the disease being introduced to Australia by the importation of green (raw) prawns was high.

Announcing the indefinite suspension of green prawn imports into Australia after the outbreak of the white spot disease in Queensland, the agriculture minister and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, said criminal charges were being pursued against one importer, while four more were being investigated.

“Australia’s $358 million prawn industry must be protected and not put at risk by the careless and selfish acts of a few,” Joyce said.

White spot disease was detected in prawns in Australian farms for the first time a month ago. The disease is not harmful to humans – the cooking process eliminates white spot – but it can rapidly kill massive populations of shrimp and could devastate Australia’s $360 million prawn industry.


Green prawn imports suspended amid white spot disease outbreak


Samples from all consignments of imported green prawns must be sent for testing to ensure they are free from white spot under Australian quarantine laws.

But it is believed at least one importer was deliberately selecting only healthy prawns from consignments that were known to be infected with white spot and sending those to be tested.

White spot disease has hit five farms near the Logan river in Queensland’s southeast, and has been detected in wild prawns in the river itself.

Prawns worth tens of millions of dollars, which were being raised in ponds at the infected farms, have had to be destroyed since the white spot disease was confirmed last month.


Joyce said the disease could devastate Australia’s prawn industry if it took hold in the country.

“We are doing everything in our power to make sure we deal with this and try and nip this in the bud,” he said, announcing the import suspension.

But prawn farmers say the government should have acted years ago to stop the importation of raw prawns, after it was warned the risk of them bringing the disease into Australia was high.

A 2009 risk assessment by Biosecurity Australia found that without proper safeguards, there was a high likelihood that diseases carried by imported raw prawns could spread to Australian populations.

“The likelihood of release of white spot syndrome virus via the unrestricted importation of non-viable, farm-sourced, frozen, uncooked, whole prawns intended for human consumption is estimated to be high,” the report said.

Rather than banning imports, Biosecurity Australia chose to strengthen quarantine rules to mitigate the risk.

A ban was also imposed on imported uncooked prawns being used for bait, because infected raw prawns can spread white spot to animals that eat them, even if they have been frozen first.

Biosecurity officials are yet to establish how the white spot disease came to be in the Logan river area.

But prawn disease experts have said one possibility is that infected imports intended for human consumption have been used as bait.

The Australian Prawn Farmers Association board member Nick Moore has welcomed the import suspension, but says it is akin to shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.


Queensland prawn farmers face huge losses over white spot disease outbreak


“Can you imagine deliberately importing a product with a virus that can actually infect non-infected stock? You wouldn’t do that,” he told ABC television. “This has just taken time for a rather expensive penny to drop.”

Moore, who also manages a farm that has been infected, said the owners of affected properties were each facing losses in the tens of millions of dollars, and there was no insurance available while prawns were still being raised.

“There is absolutely no doubt that farmers on the Logan, and any farmer affected by this in the future, will be seeking some sort of financial assistance,” he said.

“If this industry is to survive, then government intervention — be that state or federal — will be absolutely critical.”

The import suspension does not affect cooked prawns because the cooking process destroys white spot.

Australian Associated Press contributed to this story

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