The facts about BSE and potential beef imports to Australia


On 20 October 2009, the Australian Government announced a change in Australia’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) food safety policy for imported beef and beef products setting new requirements for countries that wish to export beef and beef products to Australia.

The new policy comes into effect on 1 March 2010. Under this policy, certain beef and beef products may be imported from countries that apply and are assessed by Australian authorities as being able to demonstrate they have in place, and appropriately monitor, controls necessary to ensure that beef and beef products exported to Australia are derived from animals free of BSE.

Frequently asked questions

What prompted the decision to change the policy?

For some years the Government has been requested by overseas countries to review this policy in light of new, internationally accepted science around BSE. The threat of trade action against Australia has brought the matter to a head.

Two major scientific reports* prepared by interdepartmental committees over the past five years have concluded that the absolute risk from any future importation of beef products from ‘BSE controlled risk’ countries to the Australian population is likely to be negligible.

With science telling us the disease can be controlled with the right processes in place, overseas countries believe we have been using an unfair trade barrier.

Almost all other countries in the world have changed their policies in this area including exporters such as NZ and sensitive export markets such as Korea and Japan.

Failing to address international pressure could put part of Australia’s $6 billion worth of beef exports a year in jeopardy.

*Review of the Scientific Evidence to inform BSE Policy (April 2005); Addendum and Updated Executive Summary Scientific Risk Assessment (9 August 2006)

Does this mean we will be allowing BSE-affected meat into Australia?

Under the guidelines announced to date we believe Australia will not import BSE-affected meat into the country and any suggestion to the contrary may only cause unnecessary fear amongst consumers and producers.

Any overseas country wishing to export beef to Australia must make an application to the Australian Government’s BSE Food Safety Assessment Committee for individual country risk assessment to address human health and food safety issues. This will be lead by FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) taking into account all of Australia’s requirements on equivalency of livestock traceability, food safety, animal health, surveillance, feeding and slaughter practices. Separately Biosecurity Australia will conduct its normal procedures to handle requests to import beef and beef products for human consumption.

Further information about the requirements for countries that wish to export beef and beef products to Australia is available on the FSANZ website

Will Australia be flooded with beef from the US?

Until 2003, the US, along with many other countries, had open access to export beef to the Australian market. In the five years prior to the first case of BSE in the US, the US sent about 34 tonnes of beef a year to Australia – while Australia exports around 300,000 tonnes of beef each year to the US (almost one third of our total beef exports).

Thanks to our clean and safe reputation, Australia has a long history of out-competing many other beef-producing countries both in our domestic and international markets. There is no reason to suggest this won’t continue under the new policy.

The US consumes approximately 95% of its production with the majority of its exports being forequarter cuts to Asia, tongues to Mexico and livers to Egypt. These cuts are unlikely to find a large consumer base in Australia.

Won’t we find ourselves in the same situation as the pork industry, struggling to compete with cheap imports?

There are many differences between the pork and beef industries in Australia. The pork industry exports around 10% of its product while the beef industry exports 65% of production with a long history of competing successfully with other nations into 114 markets around the world.

The Australian cattle industry has competed effectively against imports in our domestic market for many years from a range of countries including the US prior to 2003. The small quantity of beef imports into Australia over time is testament to our competitiveness – and this will continue. 

Are we putting our ‘clean and safe’ image at risk?

The world animal health body (OIE) has granted Australia the best possible risk status with respect to BSE and this is fiercely protected.

The Australian beef industry has implemented systems and procedures that have ensured that BSE has never been present in our herd. This policy change will not affect our current favourable status for BSE.

Major beef-trading countries around the world have already adjusted their trade rules in recognition of modern science. For example New Zealand, which holds a similar clean image to Australia’s, changed its rules nearly three years ago and its image has not suffered nor has it lost its category one status for BSE. Only minor amounts of US beef has been exported to NZ since the policy change.

What is the industry doing about the policy change?

The industry is ensuring that the Australian Government takes into account all of Australia’s requirements under existing protocols – such as equivalency of livestock traceability, food safety, animal health, surveillance, feeding and slaughter practices – and is doing everything it can to ensure our producers are not disadvantaged by this decision.

Why can’t we just keep the policy as it was?

The previous policy no longer reflects the latest scientific knowledge surrounding the disease and the food safety systems that the beef industry worldwide has developed and implemented.

In the unlikely event a case of BSE is ever found in an Australian animal, the previous policy stipulated that State food/health authorities had the right to remove all beef from domestic shelves right across the country. Therefore, in such a case, not only would we lose access to our 114 export markets, but we could also lose our largest and most loyal market for beef – our domestic market. The industry could not support such an unacceptable situation and this policy change removes the ability for this to happen.

Does this put us at risk of Foot and Mouth Disease?

Some people are confusing BSE with FMD and have expressed concern that Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) may come in to Australia as a result of this policy change.

This policy change only refers to BSE. All other protocols that are in place to prevent FMD entering Australia remain unchanged by this decision. Countries that cannot meet our requirements with respect to FMD will not be successful in seeking access to the Australian market.

Did You Know...

Australia holds a disease free status for FMD and TSE (BSE or 'mad-cows' disease and Scrapie)

The Australian red meat industry works closely with state and federal government agencies to ensure Australia’s meat safety systems remain world class.

Australian red meat —
Safe, healthy and delicious.

Find out more