The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (the department) recognises the challenges facing agricultural exporters and is committed to maintaining its export supply chains.
All parties, including the department, are responding to rapidly changing circumstances while working to protect people, businesses and our ongoing access to international markets.
The department has received inquiries about how it is approaching its staffing, regulatory and operational obligations to address the potential COVID-19 risks. This document outlines the department’s approach.
Position on requirement for export verification
The ability of the department to certify products for export is underpinned by required inspection and verification tasks and/or necessary audit processes. Some markets have mandatory requirements that require the department’s involvement to certify that goods have been produced along their supply chains in compliance with their requirements. Pending the commodity, these mandatory requirements may be undertaken by biosecurity officials, technical specialists, regulatory staff and/or veterinary officers.
For a variety of activities, our staff are required to perform regulatory functions under legislation. The department has taken steps to ensure that these activities continue.
Our staff are working collaboratively with industry to ensure ongoing compliance with export standards as well as importing country requirements. Where required, the department will consider alternative procedures for some activities on a case-by-case basis in response to the COVID-19 risk.
While the department may implement alternative procedures for some activities - our on-site interactions must continue. Where an establishment is seeking to continue to prepare, pack and/or store product for export, departmental staff undertaking regulatory tasks will require access to the premises.
Position on department staff accessing facilities
We require departmental staff undertaking regulatory tasks to be aware of, and comply with, work health and safety procedures, health and hygiene requirements, protective equipment, vaccination requirements and any other task related duties of the department and that of the external premise owner.
Advice on the department’s response to COVID-19 is regularly updated to respond to the changing circumstances. Our staff are regularly provided with updated advice to ensure they are following the latest health and safety procedures.
The department’s advice is that anyone who is sick/has a communicable disease, or is feeling unwell, should not present for work generally, including at third party premises.
The department also has its own work, health and safety responsibility to its employees. It is expected that any change in the health status of an establishment is communicated to the department as soon as possible.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Department’s workforce
There has been minimal impact on the department’s workforce at this point in time.
Impact has been limited to staff returning from overseas from 16 March 2020, who have had to self-isolate in accordance with the recent federal government directive.
The department does have active business continuity and contingency plans in place and is activating these should circumstances require. These plans are directed to ensuring all export certification can continue, with all critical functions being supported.
Meat program specific: Importing Country requirements and Approved Arrangements
The department is unable to certify products that do not meet the requirements of an importing country requirements or an establishment’s Approved Arrangement. Where the department is unable to certify products as meeting these requirements, industry will be impacted in relation to their ability to export those products.
The department will continue to take necessary steps to provide staff, including its veterinary officers, in accordance with current service agreements to support the issuing of certification.
Meat program specific: Position on Approved Islamic Organisations (AIOs)
AIOs can be refused entry or be made subject to conditions when seeking to enter an external premise as AIOs are required to comply with reasonable instructions that allow an establishment to comply with its work health and safety obligations, and enter the premise on the basis of consent. The department and the AIOs are unable to certify product that does not meet the requirements of the establishment’s approved arrangement or importing country requirements.
If AIOs are unable to enter premises, the practical effect is that the AIO cannot supervise, inspect and satisfy themselves that goods comply with the halal procedures within the approved arrangement. The consequence of this would be that AIO’s are unable to assess an establishment’s conformance with halal procedures; an official mark may not be applied to the halal meat where the approved arrangement designates that the AIO must apply the official mark; and halal meat cannot be certified and an halal certificate issued. As such, industry will not be able to export the meat products as halal.
The department will continue to monitor the situation and will advise industry of any changes to audit processes or other regulatory activities.
Additional information will be provided specific to additional commodity types as it becomes available.
The department will continue to update this advice as needed.