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  • A selection of foods purchased by SBS Punjabi Radio which were sent for testing as part of this special investigation. (SBS)
Why are dangerous products getting past Australia's import and food safety regulators? SBS Punjabi Radio investigates.
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27 Oct 2016 - 7:00 AM  UPDATED 29 Aug 2017 - 3:02 PM

As part of an exclusive special investigation in which 18 products were tested, SBS Punjabi Radio identified food available for sale in Australian supermarkets that breach Australian food safety standards, could be considered potentially risky or in one case, is a completely banned substance. 

To understand how these dangerous products produced overseas are routinely being sold here, SBS journalists investigated how imported foods make their way into the country.

Here are the key findings:

Only five per cent of packaged food imports to Australia are tested

All imported foods must comply with strict biosecurity requirements to be allowed into Australia. Importation and compliance is overseen by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR), which uses many accredited laboratories to conduct tests on imported food products.

The DWAR says 98 per cent of the food imported into Australia is compliant with Food Standards stipulations.

But as land-use researcher Anthony Amis points out, a majority of imports are not even tested.

"Only five per cent of the food products that are coming into Australia are actually tested for pesticides by the quarantine service,” says Amis.

"That leaves a pretty big margin of the stuff that can come in that no-one's really sure.

"That's 95 per cent of whatever is coming into the country isn't tested at all."

So is it enough to test 5% of imports classified as surveillance foods, which include rice, wheat, snack foods, spices, baby foods and more?

"The sole responsibility with imported goods is with the Biosecurity department," says Dr Kamlajit Vilkhu, who tested imported foods for many years before moving to the private sector.

"The testing regime is quite stringent. But the number of samples, or the number of the products tested in a specific period of time is very, very limited because the volumes and the commodities which are coming in in the last five, 10 years have increased exponentially."

Vilkhu says that ensuring compliance is a very challenging task – particularly those coming from India.

"The level of those chemicals is way too high. You can even feel, you can smell, you can taste [them]. This is my personal experience. So, this is quite an alarming situation for most of the products which are coming from India with the pesticides or insecticide chemical residues."

Hear the full interview with Dr Kamlajit Vilkhu below:

Packaged foods not deemed high risk

The DAWR classifies all imported foods either as "Risk" or "Surveillance" foods.

Products that could pose medium to high risk to public health, including dairy, meat and fresh foods, are considered Risk Food.

All other foods, including processed foods, grains and grocery items, are classified as Surveillance food. According to DAWR’s own website, 5% of imports classified as surveillance food have a "chance of being tested".

Australia's testing regime focuses on "Risk Foods" such as dairy and fresh products, and only a small proportion of foods imported in sealed packages are tested at the point of entry. But the lab testing commissioned by SBS reveals that dangerous chemicals and pesticides can be found in packaged foods.

USA rejects more imports from India than Australia

India consistently figures in the top three countries whose products are rejected most on a monthly basis by the US Food and Drug Administration.

But the same cannot be said for Indian imports in Australia.

The USFDA website reveals that in a period of 15 months during 2015-16, well over 3,000 imported foods from India were rejected.

The reasons included pesticide, adulteration, salmonella, melamine, "filthy, putrid appearance" or containing "poisonous and deleterious" substances.

The "Failing Foods Report" made public by the DAWR also reveals that Australian biosecurity officials rejected 34 food products from India over the past year, for non-compliance, including one consignment that contained betel nut.

Hidden camera footage showed that the banned substance Betel Nut was readily available for sale in Australia when SBS attempted to purchase it. Read more here.

In Australia, imports from the Thailand, China and United States seem to be subjected to most scrutiny, because of the kind of foods imported from these countries.

Different standards in India

"In India, there's been a big push by the government to increase reliance on pesticides, particularly in the last 20 years," explains Anthony Amis.

A researcher with Friends of the Earth, Amis has studied chemical contamination in food for over 10 years. He believes the food coming from India is of particular concern.

"We don't think the safeguards are in place to necessarily protect the food from high residues," says Amis.

"And if that's the case, what is actually being exported from that country to Australia? And are there mechanisms in Australia tight enough to restrict dangerous foodstuff from entering the country? And we are arguing, no, they are not."

Amis says that these foods laced with pesticides which are banned in Australia, continue to make their way into Australian kitchens, from India and other South Asian countries.

"One we have got big concern about is Endosulfan, which was banned in Australia only a few years ago," says Amis. "And we know in India that's not going to be banned until 2017."

"If there are chemicals that aren't allowed to be used in Australia for their safety, why are we still importing food that's tainted with the same chemicals years after they have been banned in Australia but they are still allowed to be used overseas?"

Listen to the full interview with land-use researcher Anthony Amis below:

Even though India has a well-established Food Safety and Standards Authority, Indian experts lack faith in the regulatory framework.

"India lacks in the implementation infrastructure and the resources required in the food-safety domain" says food-safety program manager at the Centre for Science in India, Amit Khurana.

Khurana says Indian authorities are unable to implement the rules and regulations with any degree of certainty.

He explains, "Implementation varies as per different states, the kind of infrastructure resources they have, the kind of laboratories they have, the kind of professional and technical staff who can address the food-safety issues."

"Between the regulation and the implementation, let's say, implementation is certainly a much bigger worry for us in India."

"The other aspect we have been dealing with is contaminants, such as antibiotic residues in the intensive farm-animal production settings. We don't have standards for, let's say, chicken as of now. We do not have standards for antibiotics in milk. We do not have standards for an entire set of antibiotics in other foodstuff. So, we clearly are not at par, or I would say are far behind the global best practices, at least on certain counts where we have been involved. As I said, labelling and antibiotic residues is one."

Importers exploiting legal loopholes Australian system

Some importers reveal loopholes in the Australian system that can be exploited.

With the volume of international trade increasing, and greater emphasis on simplifying business procedures, even importers agree fewer food samples seem to be tested these days.

"If we bring 300, 250 or 100 items in one container, they can't check all of those items," explains Harjinder Singh, who owns a retail grocery business in Dandenong, in south-east Melbourne.

He says, out of every hundred products imported, very few are sent for testing.

"It's not their fault," says Singh. "The quarantine does send two or three items to the lab for testing. The importer also presses them not to test many items, as it raises their cost of business. It costs $500 to $550 for testing one item, it increases our cost. That's the reason that substandard stuff also slips through."

Another well-established importer in Melbourne, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told SBS Punjabi Radio that importers can exploit loopholes in the Australian import protocol, importing goods without faithfully declaring all the contents in a shipment.

"You just have to make the declaration on the invoices that is given to quarantine just two days before the container arrives, that these are the products coming in the container,” the importer tells SBS.

"And it depends on the importer, if he even wants to declare those things or not. There are a lot of times when there are no declarations made for the goods coming in the container and those goods are siphoned out before the quarantine checks it."

A Border control "honour system"

This importer says the Australian Biosecurity department relies so much on importers' honesty and integrity, that after a food container arrives at a dock, the importer can transport it to a "quarantine- approved premises" for a biosecurity check later.

"The importers are opening up the containers, taking the goods out and showing just what they want to show them," says the importer.

"Quarantine basically relies on their honesty ... and works on a trust basis. They haven't got that much time to go through each and every thing. Most of the people won't even know what actually those products are, as they have never seen those products before."

This importer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says loopholes must be plugged.

"They should do more testing in the food line, because that is a very important part of the human consumption.

"I sometimes find it very strange that, in Australia, we have laws ... when a taxi driver needs to drive a taxi, he needs to have a licence. But to be an importer, the guy doesn't need to do anything. He can bring in anything so more testing has to be done. And the most important thing is the ingredient list that is supplied, that should be thoroughly checked."

Consulted by SBS, a spokesperson for the DAWR said: "Food businesses that import food are subject to the food legislation requirements of the relevant state or territory government (and) where concerns around the integrity of a particular food business is identified, this is investigated and appropriate action taken".

Parallel imports are also a concern – read more here.

SBS did not receive a response from MDH Spices in India, Haldirams in India, the importers of Complan in Australia or the importer of Indus Basmati rice in time for the publication of this story.

A spokesperson for DAWR asked SBS to "bring this to the attention of the relevant local government health authority as soon as possible" because "they are responsible for investigating such concerns" and they will be able to "confirm whether the foods are non-compliant with the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code".

SBS has reported all of their commissioned lab results to the Department of Health in Victoria and reported many samples to the relevant Councils (local government).

Explore the full SBS Investigation into food imports here
EXCLUSIVE: Australian supermarkets revealed to be selling dangerous or banned foods
Australians consume diverse food items, mostly imported from overseas. But, are we sure these foods are safe? How is Australia controlling their quality?

Read the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’ full statement here.

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