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Australia’s Quarantine Standards for
Cooked Chicken Meat from Thailand

By Kraichoke Arunpairojkul  

  

FACTS

Summary of Background on Development of the Quarantine Standard

The issue of Australian quarantine standards for chicken first arose in 1990 when the Australian government began considering the importation of chicken meat from Thailand , Denmark and the United States .  In response to domestic concerns about the introduction of Newcastle Disease and Infectious Bursal Disease Virus (IBDV), the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) began a risk assessment on cooked chicken.  It deferred a risk assessment of uncooked chicken meat pending completion of the first assessment.

In 1995, AQIS adopted the results of a 1988 study of IBDV conducted at the United Kingdom ’s Central Veterinary Laboratory as the basis for determining “safe” cooking times and temperatures.  The decision met with strong opposition from the Australian Chicken Growers Council who argued that the experiment underestimated the risks associated with commercial cooking processes.  For their part, Thai chicken exporters complained that the Australian heat treatment requirements were excessively stringent and commercially impracticable.  The requirements would put Thai cooked chicken products at a competitive disadvantage by unnecessarily raising production costs and destroying the nutritional value of cooked meat.

To resolve the issue, AQIS commissioned the Central Veterinary Laboratory to conduct a new test on the heat inactivation of IBDV.

The experiment was completed in 1997.  It confirmed that the temperature/time parameters adopted in 1995 readily inactivated Newcastle Disease Virus, but it also found that these parameters would not totally inactivate the strain of IBDV used in the tests.  Thus, in November 1997, Australia announced that it would permit imports of cooked chicken meat from Thailand , Denmark and the United States that was processed at core temperature/time parameters between 70°C for 143 minutes and 80°C for 114 minutes.  Again the decision met with protest from both Thai chicken exporters and the Australian chicken industry, and AQIS asked the British laboratory to carry out yet another round of tests.

This set of test results, submitted to AQIS in mid-1998, diverged greatly from previous ones.  Using different IBDV strains and a different medium for suspending the virus, the new study found that IBDV was unexpectedly resistant to heat inactivation at temperatures lower than 74°C.  Based on these new test results, AQIS again revised the minimum core temperatures/time parameters, requiring chicken meat to be cooked at between 74°C for 125 minutes and 80°C for 125 minutes.           


Background

Since mid-1980, Thailand , Denmark and the United States have made a number of requests to export both cooked and uncooked chicken meat to Australia .  The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) began considering the proposal to import chicken meat in 1990.  However, the Australian Veterinary Association and domestic poultry producers voiced concern over the introduction of Newcastle Disease and Infectious Bursal Disease Virus (IBDV) through the imported meat.  Either could pose a great threat to Australia ’s poultry industry and native bird populations.  In response to these concerns, AQIS began an assessment of the risk of importing cooked chicken meat.  It deferred assessment of uncooked meat pending completion of the cooked meat assessment.

Although Australia is not now a principal market for Thai chicken products, Thai suppliers could potentially capture 10 percent of the Australian cooked chicken market, worth about 920 million baht (A$ 40 million), during just the first few years of exports.  The Australian poultry market is estimated at 46 billion baht (A$ 2 billion) annually.  Annual consumption of chicken meat is now 27 kg per person compared with the consumption of beef and veal (40.0 kg per person), sheep meat (16.8 kg per person) and pork meat (18.4 kg per person).  Based on the present trend, poultry meat could overtake beef and veal as the Australians' most preferred meat within the next ten years.  Cooked chicken meat accounts for 20 percent of the market and sales are growing 10 to 20 percent per year.  Thailand producers particularly saw potential for sales in Australia to fast food chains such as KFC and McDonald’s and big supermarket chains such as Coles, Woolworth and Safeway.  The fast food chains may be interested in sourcing cheap precooked chicken meat from Thailand , while supermarkets may be interested in importing Thai chicken products to satisfy their lower-income customers.

In 1998 the United States was the world’s largest exporter of poultry meat followed by the European Union (where France accounts for 60% of the exports and the Netherlands , 25%) and Brazil .  Thailand is the largest net exporter in Asia .  China and Hong export more than Thailand , but they also import more than they export.  (See table in Appendix)

Infectious Bursal Disease is important from an economic viewpoint because it could cause huge losses for chicken producers.  IBDV is highly contagious and remains infectious for several months in the poultry house environment.  To eradicate the virus, a poultry house requires effective cleansing and disinfecting.  IBDV is most prevalent in Southeast Asia , Europe and North America ; the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) 1997 yearbook reported cases of the disease in Australia .  The proposed cooking regime does not apply to domestically processed chicken products on the grounds that the country is free from IBDV.  

In mid-1995, the Australian government decided "in-principle" to allow imports of cooked chicken that had been processed under specified temperature/time parameters proven to inactivate the disease viruses.  To determine these specific parameters, AQIS considered a range of studies and then adopted a 1988 study of IBDV conducted by Dr. Dennis Alexander of the Central Veterinary Laboratory in the UK .  This study, commissioned by General Foods poultry, New Zealand, recommended 70°C for 90 minutes and 80°C for 14.4 minutes for the inactivation of IBDV.

In 1996, AQIS published a draft protocol that set out core temperature/time levels for processing chicken meat:

  • 70°C for 95 minutes or

  • 72°C for 65 minutes or

  • 74°C for 44 minutes or

  • 76°C for 30 minutes or

  • 78°C for 21 minutes or

  • 80°C for 15 minutes  

In reaction to AQIS’s draft protocol, the Australian Chicken Growers Council argued that AQIS’s risk assessment underestimated the risks associated with commercial cooking processes.  For their part, Thai chicken exporters complained that the cooking regime proposed by the Australian government was commercially impracticable. The specified temperature/time parameters would not only unnecessarily raise production costs, but also would affect the quality of the cooked meat, thereby reducing the competitiveness of their products in the Australian market.

The issue was brought up for discussion in the Thai-Australian Joint Commission.  Subsequently, in early 1997, the Australian government commissioned its own test by the Central Veterinary Laboratory.

In April 1997, a delegation from AQIS and the Australian poultry industry was sent to inspect four Thai processing facilities that had applied for the sanitary certification required for exporting to Australia .  None of the facilities met the Australian sanitary requirements; all were told that they needed to improve their slaughter and processing facilities.  Australia regulations provide that The Australian Standard for Hygienic Production of Poultry Meat for Human Consumption will be used as a guide in the assessment of slaughter and processing establishments for approval to process product for export to Australia .  The AQIS Code of Hygienic Practice for the Production of Heat Treated Refrigerated Foods Packaged for Extended Shelf Life will be used as a guide in evaluating the processing and handling of product for export to Australia .

In July 1997, amid mounting protest from domestic poultry producers, the Australian government delayed a decision to open its poultry market to foreign imports until the Central Veterinary Laboratory completed its second trial and submitted the results to AQIS.

In September 1997, Thailand threatened to boycott US$ 1.2 billion dairy and meat exports from Australia in retaliation for a continued ban on cooked chicken meat imports.  The Australian Dairy Industry Council called on the Australian government to abide by the WTO's rules on non-tariff barriers and to lift quarantine barriers on imports of cooked chicken meat to escape the boycott.  National Party leader Tim Fischer suggested the Australian government place a tariff on imported cooked chicken meat as a transitional arrangement, which WTO provisions allow.

On 7 November 1997 , the Australian government announced a decision to allow imports of cooked chicken meat from Denmark , the United States and Thailand processed under the following core temperature/time parameters:

  • 70°C for 143 minutes or

  • 72°C for 137 minutes or

  • 74°C for 131 minutes or

  • 76°C for 125 minutes or

  • 78°C for 119.5 minutes or

  • 80°C for 114 minutes

The parameters were based on the Central Veterinary Laboratory’s new test results, which confirmed that the existing temperature/time parameters readily inactivated Newcastle Disease Virus but would not totally inactivate the strain of IBDV used in the tests.          

But protests continued from both Thai chicken exporters and the Australian chicken industry, and AQIS asked the Central Veterinary Laboratory to carry out yet another round of tests.  The test results, submitted to AQIS in mid 1998, indicated that IBDV was unexpectedly resistant to heat inactivation at temperatures lower than 74°C.  These test results differed from the previous study because in the second test Central Veterinary Laboratory used different virus strains and a different medium for suspending the virus.  Based on these new test results, Australia announced in June 1998 a revision of the minimum core temperatures/time parameters as follows:

  • 74°C for 165 minutes or

  • 75°C for 158 minutes or

  • 76°C for 152 minutes or

  • 77°C for 145 minutes or

  • 78°C for 138 minutes or

  • 79°C for 132 minutes or

  • 80°C for 125 minutes

Australia notified the WTO on June 17, 1998 that it intended to put the new standards in effect on August 10, 1998 .  (See Appendix for the WTO notification G/SPS/N/AUS/72).  In response to this notification, Thailand submitted a statement that questioned the need for the stringent requirements imposed by Australia .  Thailand noted that the data on which the standard was based was not realistic.  The most likely strain of the IBDV virus can be deactivated at much lower temperatures than the regulations required and it was extremely unlikely that birds infected with the more virulent strain of the virus could be exported since they would die before being slaughtered.  The Australian standard also does not take into account the preventive measures that can be taken in exporting countries.  Thailand said that if there is to be a new standard, it should be set by Office International des Epizooties (OIE), ( Thailand ’s complete comments are attached in the Appendix.)  At the September 15-16, 1998 meeting of the WTO Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, the European Communities said that the Australian standard was more restrictive than necessary.  (See Appendix for WTO document G/SPS/GEN/96, 25 September 1998.)  The United States in its 1998 report on foreign trade barriers, National Trade Estimates report, said that:  

The Government of Australia limits livestock and poultry imports through quarantine and health restrictions.  For some of these, the Australian Government has not completed a risk assessment that would provide the WTO-required scientific basis for imposing such restrictions.  The Federal Government decided to lift the ban on cooked chicken imports from the U.S. , Denmark and Thailand .  The United States believes the recommended temperature/time requirements applicable to the treatment of processed cooked poultry meat are so extreme as to discourage imports.

At a meeting in September 1998, the Thai National Sanitary and Phytosanitary Committee instructed the Livestock Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives to conduct its own risk assessment of possible IBDV-contamination in the production of cooked chicken.  The assessment is now underway and is expected to be completed in April 1999.  It is designed to account for IBDV prevention programs at the farm level; incidence of IBDV infection in Thailand; risk management for transporting chickens from poultry farms to slaughter houses; and quality assurance programs used by Thai chicken processing plants, including heat treatment, packaging, and shipment methods for cooked products.  AQIS and the Central Veterinary Laboratory arbitrarily assumed that the CS88 strain of IBDV, the very virulent strain, was prevalent in Thailand although so far, no research has been done to identify which IBDV strains exist in Thailand .

The heat inactivation measures recommended by the AQUIS are not the only ways to deal with IBDV.  According to Professor Daral Jackwood, an Ohio State University expert on IBDV, the disease control used most often is vaccination of breeder flocks.  Using this method, maternal antibodies are transferred to chicks and thereby protect the chicks for the first two critical weeks of life, a time when infection by IBDV causes the most immune suppression.  Another study conducted by the University of Florida ’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science also confirms that protection of chickens from IBDV can be achieved through a breeder vaccination program, supplemented by effective biosecurity measures (control of people, equipment and vehicles on the farm) and an effective broiler vaccination program.  Moreover, regular ante-mortem and post-mortem inspection at the farm level can ensure that each batch of source birds is in good health before being transported to slaughterhouses.

At the processing stage, a one week quarantine is sufficient to ensure that the birds are IBDV-free because chickens infected with IBDV will normally die within 4-5 days.  Cooked chicken meat destined for Australia may even be separately processed and stored.  Quality assurance programs such as HACCP introduced by Thai processing plants should also prevent exposure of cooked products to possible recontamination.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in coordination with the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives’ Department of Livestock, has led the Thai government's effort to address the Australia ’s restrictions on chicken imports.  Since Australia is a relatively small market in comparison to other major markets such as Japan and the EU, the issue has not been placed high on either Thai or Australian government agendas.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is charged with promoting Thailand 's relations with foreign countries, certainly does not want to see bilateral relationships between Thailand and Australia soured by this single issue.  The Ministry of Commerce currently is exploring market opportunities in Australia for other agricultural products, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives is now implementing a Thai-Australian MOU on agricultural cooperation (signed during the Australian Prime Minister's official visit in April, 1998).  Australia extended A$160 million in aid to Thailand during the 1997 financial crisis.

The Broiler Processing Exporters Association is exploring the possibility of asking the Thai government to impose a selective boycott on some of Australian diary and meat exports to Thailand or to delay importation of lupin seeds and skim milk.  An expanded overseas market means an increase in demand for chickens to be processed for exports.  The Association has also heard of reported cases of Blue Tongue disease in Australia , an animal disease that is exotic to Thailand , and is considering whether that might be a grounds for restricting Australian beef imports.  Animal feed companies will benefit indirectly from increased exports; they can expect their sales to increase as a result of growing demand for feed grains from chicken growers.  Thai Chicken Growers Association represents the producers and the Thai Feed Mill Association represents the animal feed companies.  The Board of Trade of Thailand is represented on several governmental committees.  It acts as the voice of business, pointing out concerns and offering opinions and recommendations on behalf of the private sector to the government.  The Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce will not want to see commercial relations between Bangkok and Canberra strained as a result of any failure of the Thai and Australian governments to settle this problem. 

The Board of Trade of Thailand acts as the voice of business, pointing out concerns and offering opinions and recommendations on behalf of the private sector to the government.  The Board is represented on several governmental committees.  The Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce seeks to maintain good commercial relations between Bangkok and Canberra and does not want the Thai and Australian governments’ failure to settle a problem to strain relations.

In Australia the Australian Chicken Growers Council (ACGC), with the supported of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), has actively lobbied against proposals to import foreign chicken meat on the grounds that there is a high risk of importing Newcastle Disease and IBDV into the country.  The process of import risk analysis carried out by AQIS, although based on scientific procedures, also allowed participation by stakeholders, including the industry concerned.  The scientific process has been susceptible to pressure particularly from ACGC.

The Australian Chicken Meat Federation, which represents major chicken meat processors, has not been active in the lobby against chicken meat imports.  Some of the Federation’s members have been increasing their capacity and may even be looking to export opportunities.  Imports of chicken meat will help assure a good, inexpensive supply of meat crucial to producing an internationally competitive product.

The final decision on quarantine will be made by AQIS.  The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) can influence the decision-making process to some extent.  DFAT is in charge of ensuring that Australia ’s trade policy is in line with its WTO commitments.  Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade Tim Fischer, leader of the National Party, was fully aware that Australia could not resist the global liberalization trend when he suggested that his country introduce appropriate safeguard actions such as a tariff or quota restriction on foreign chicken imports on a temporary and reducing basis.  It is unclear whether he can gain support from other party members for this cause because his party has a constituency in rural Australia .

The Australian government may need to provide adjustment assistance to help the domestic chicken industry to adjust to the change in market conditions that chicken meat imports will bring.  It may also look at export opportunities as an alternative way to help the industry.  In either case, the government has to work hard and closely with the industry to help domestic producers become more competitive.  According to an international benchmarking study in 1997, Australia lags behind other major chicken producers both in terms of price competitiveness and efficiency.

Australia 's quarantine policy also affects other major poultry exporters, including the EU (especially France and Denmark ), the US and Brazil .  The USA Poultry and Egg Export Council and the Danish Poultry Exporters Association are two groups that advise their government’s on issues affecting their exports.  Denmark is also a strong free-trade supporters as well as a chicken exporter.

The Bangkok Post and the following newspapers in Australia may have an interest in the story: The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph in New South Wales, The Age and the Herald Sun in Victoria, The Courier-Mail in Queensland, The Advertiser in South Australia, The Times in Western Australia, The Mercury in Tasmania, Alice Spring News in North Territory and The Canberra Times in Canberra.

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