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Australia issues biosecurity alert for international mail and packages ahead of Diwali

Lockie and Lauren at the mail screening centre to detect prohibited substances Source: Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Australian authorities have issued a warning to people expecting Diwali gifts from overseas to ensure that the contents comply with the nation's strict biosecurity laws. Over 50,000 non-compliant packages have already been intercepted this year after risks were identified upon their arrival from overseas.

With strict border restrictions in place due to COVID-19, many people are sending gifts to their friends and family in Australia through overseas mail and courier deliveries, and the authorities have seen a spike in the arrival of such packages in the lead up to Diwali this year.


Highlights:

  • Over 55,000 packages arriving from overseas have been intercepted in Australia between January - September this year 
  • 80 per cent of intercepted packages contained plant seeds
  • Authorities have issued a warning about plant, animal or dairy products that could be mailed from overseas in the lead up to Diwali
  • Breaches can lead to fines, prosecution and visa cancellation for people arriving at Australian airports

Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management David Littleproud says, “The ‘festival of lights’ is a time for celebration but these gifts could potentially carry serious biosecurity risks if they contain plant or animal material."

Of particular concern are milk-based sweets, traditional dairy products, or grains and seeds used for prayers during Diwali.

Rajbir Singh from the Department of Agriculture, Water, and Environment told SBS Punjabi, "Our mail centre has intercepted 55,000 parcels and packages between January - September this year alone."

He says 80 per cent of these contained plant seeds.

"Of the parcels intercepted this year, 45,000 had plants and plant products, with the vast majority - 42,000 packages to be precise - contained plant seeds. What's most alarming is that 60 per cent of the seeds couldn't even be identified. So while we technically class them as exotic, they could actually be noxious and pose a great risk to our environment and agriculture industry."

Package containing plant seeds seized in Melbourne
Package containing plant seeds seized in Melbourne
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Mr Singh says with a larger number of parcels and gifts expected to arrive by mail or courier this year during Diwali due to COVID travel restrictions, people must be aware of the risks some traditional items can create. 

"Milk-based sweets, dairy products, rice, wheat grains, unprocessed nuts and other plant-based items used for Diwali pooja (prayer) are not permitted to enter Australia from overseas."

"Milk products imported from overseas creates a huge risk of introducing foot and mouth disease to Australia, and we have to ensure that doesn't happen." 

"The other big risk is the khapra beetle which can be found in unprocessed nuts- so my advice is, please tell your family and friends overseas to avoid  sending plants, plant products, grains, nuts and animal products."

What is and isn't allowed into Australia by mail?

Mr Singh says, especially in the context of Diwali -related mail, the following items must not be sent to Australia:

  • Indian milk-based sweets such as barfi, ras malai and pedas
  • Homemade mithai (sweets) which are dairy-based, and even homemade pickles
  • products containing dairy
  • fresh and dried fruit; nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and tea
  • plants, flowers and plant material

He adds though, that many gifts are permissible if they are cloth or synthetic based. Acceptable items include:

  • Silks, fabrics, dress material
  • Jewellery - whether made of gold or imitation
  • Synthetic beads, metallic coins
  • Artificial flowers

What happens to intercepted parcels?

Hi-tech imaging machines are used by the Australian authorities to screen all incoming mail.

"The X-ray machines are so sensitive that they can detect even small chia seeds," says Mr Singh.

"We also use sniffer dogs to identify plant or animal products, and that's how so many thousands of potential breaches were detected this year alone."

Mr Singh says while some of the intercepted parcels can be treated before being forwarded to the recipient in Australia, others may be destroyed or repatriated.

Parcels arriving from overseas being at an Australian mail screening centre
Parcels arriving from overseas being at an Australian mail screening centre
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

"We usually contact the recipient to let them know if we can treat goods we've intercepted, and we send it to them when we know it is safe. At other times, we may have to return the parcel to the country of origin at the cost of the recipient, or even destroy it so it can't cause any harm."

"Breaches and violations can entail fines and prosecution, especially if the declaration isn't filled out in good faith."

He adds that his department is keener to educate the community rather than slap fines or prosecute people because "keeping our country disease-free is the shared responsibility of everyone who lives here."

To hear the full interview with Rajbir Singh about the biosecurity requirements for parcels and mailed goods, and also to hear the updated warning about visa cancellation upon arrival at an Australian airport for serious breaches, click on the audio link above. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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