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Oversight Allows Infected Prawns To Enter Country

Crustaceans Health Economics +3 more

AUSTRALIA - Raw prawns from Malaysia containing a lethal virus could eradicate Australia's AUD 265 million (USD 268 million) prawn industry - yet 20 tonnes of the dangerous shellfish were granted entry into the country because a quarantine officer was weary or distracted, a Senate hearing was told.

Australian Prawn Farmers Association executive officer Helen Jenkins said the incident had ''huge implications'' for the industry and the environmental health of Australia's waterways, reports The Canberra Times.

"We have absolutely no confidence in the way the Government has handled this," she said.

The 20-tonne shipment of Malaysian raw peeled prawns was released into Australia last September, despite laboratory reports showing 31 per cent of samples taken from the consignment had tested positive for white spot syndrome virus - a highly contagious disease that has destroyed shrimp fisheries in China, Thailand, India, Mexico and the Philippines.

Australia is the only country where wild-caught and farmed prawn fisheries remain free of the virus.

But a quarantine officer with the Biosecurity Services Group "overlooked the positives" in the laboratory paperwork, the hearing was told.

"You mean he didn't read the report," NSW Liberal senator Bill Heffernan replied.

"This is a serious breach of quarantine ... heads should have rolled."

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry staff told the Senate hearing just over three tonnes of the raw prawns had been "recalled and re-exported", but the remaining 17 tonnes had not been located. A spokesman said it was hard to track down where the prawns had gone because most were "sold to the catering industry."

Senator Heffernan dismissed the explanation as "a rubbish answer" and demanded the department provide a list of all outlets purchasing prawns from the shipment.

The Australian Prawn Farmers Association has written to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and wants the Federal Government to track all outlets that bought the virus-contaminated prawns.

"They must know where those 17 tonnes went," Ms Jenkins said. "There has got to be a paper trail of receipts and invoices, and to claim otherwise is ridiculous. How can the department claim there is a low risk of the virus getting out into our waterways if they can't even tell us where these prawns went?"