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From: TSS ()
Subject: Vaile casts doubt on softer BSE policy
Date: October 10, 2005 at 7:21 am PST

Vaile casts doubt on softer BSE policy
October 10, 2005 - 7:09PM

Nationals leader Mark Vaile has doubts about a proposal to relax Australia's mad cow disease regulations, a further sign of divisions in the coalition over the controversial plan.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister made his concerns known on Monday as the government was forced in parliament to reject any link between a softer mad cow policy and the US free trade agreement (FTA).

The government is considering modifying its policy on the brain wasting cattle disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

But the plan already faced opposition from the head of the Senate's rural affairs committee, Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, who claims it will weaken Australia's trade position.

Now Mr Vaile has waded into the debate, insisting that Australia's tough quarantine system must not be compromised.

"My view is that we should be cautious on this issue, and do nothing that could undermine the way our quarantine system is governed," he told AAP.

"I do understand the views of the beef industry, but we also have to bear in mind the way our quarantine system is governed."

The beef industry has asked for a change to rules that currently force the withdrawal from sale of all beef if a single case of BSE is recorded in Australia, which is currently free of the disease.

That rule, the industry says, could cause irreparable damage to producers.

While cabinet is yet to decide on the matter, the government says changing the domestic consumption regime may also mean relaxing import regulations under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

That could mean Australia overturning its ban on beef imports from BSE affected countries like the US and Canada.

The plan has also been linked to Australia's free trade deal with the US.

Sydney University Professor Linda Weiss, a respected trade analyst, believes any move to water down the BSE policy is being pushed because of a little-known element of the FTA.

That section, she says, effectively commits Australia to following world trade guidelines which have already softened mad cow disease rules.

But Mr Vaile rejected any trade link, saying the government's BSE policy considerations had "nothing to do with the FTA".

The alleged FTA link, which stems from a side-letter on BSE which is a binding part of the trade deal, was raised in parliament by NSW independent MP Peter Andren as a possible threat to Australia's quarantine rules.

But Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said the FTA did not weaken the biosecurity regime.

"It does not do any such thing and the government is always committed and will continue to be protecting our borders in regard to quarantine," he told parliament.

Earlier, Mr McGauran said changing the domestic consumption rules in the event of a BSE outbreak in Australia was "a no brainer", but the flow-on effects on the import system had to be carefully considered.

"Trade won't come into this. We're looking at this from a health point of view alone and science will dictate the outcome," he told reporters.

The minister rejected the Australian Medical Association's claim that it was safer to keep the current consumption rules to protect against BSE's human variant, Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease.

"That's an absurd position and I wouldn't have thought the AMA has properly considered the whole issue," Mr McGauran said.

He also rejected Professor Weiss's concerns about the FTA, describing them as "nonsense".

© 2005


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