Importers say that supplies of the nation's favourite shellfish are already dwindling and prices have increased. Australian quarantine tests for disease have halted the importation of more than 300 tonnes, or 22 container loads, of raw prawns since October. Only seven containers have been allowed entry up to December 2007 and the government is keen to clamp-down on consignments that present a risk to public health and the nations own fish stocks.
The tough new quarantine tests on raw imported prawns were introduced by Biosecurity Australia and Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service to guard against four deadly viruses prevalent in South East Asian prawn farms.
The tough new border controls have angered the hospitality industry, seafood importers and distributors, who fear the financial cost in the next year will top more than half a billion dollars. They say that hotels and clubs, budget bistros and popular Asian restaurants will bear the brunt of the shortages. The seafood importers association, caterers and hospitality organisations have campaigned against the control measures and are continuing to push for the tests to be halted. They argue that they are excessive and that the science behind them is questionable.
Price surgeSince October, one South Australian seafood distributor has raised wholesale prices for imported medium prawns by up to 40 per cent from $18.90/kg to $25.90/kg. It reports that some restaurants have now started to buy smaller shrimp in a bid to cut spending.
Chairman of the Australian Seafood Importers Association Harry Peters says budget and middle-level dining will find it more difficult to source their usual produce. They will have to charge more for seafood dishes.
"The only alternative will be higher-priced Australian prawns," said Mr Peters. "Your five stars and three hats restaurants will be OK, because they can pay the high prices and the people who eat there are happy to pay," he added.
The price of Australian prawns, which supply less than half Australia's consumption, will also rocket once shortfalls of imported product hits the market.