Industry criticism grows as food declared safe by Minister

23 Mar, 2016 01:00 AM
Agriculture and Food Minister Ken Baston says there is no threat to biosecurity despite concerns over a staff freeze preventing the hiring of new staff.
Agriculture and Food Minister Ken Baston says there is no threat to biosecurity despite concerns over a staff freeze preventing the hiring of new staff.

AGRICULTURE and Food Minister Ken Baston reaffirmed WA's reputation for safe food, in response to claims WA's biosecurity is being threatened by a government staff freeze which has prevented it from hiring key staff.

He also said he is talking with Treasurer Mike Nahan about an exemption for the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) from an on-going public sector recruitment freeze.

"WA exports about $7 billion of produce a year and our products are sought after in Asia and the Middle East for our safe, clean quality," Mr Baston said.

Labor's Agriculture and Food spokesman Mick Murray last week warned WA's grains and livestock industries would be "decimated" by a disease outbreak after several key biosecurity staff were removed in recent months.

The claims came as a series of leaked letters showed Mr Baston's request to Dr Nahan for staff and resources was refused.

Mr Murray is concerned deepening cuts to DAFWA's budget have created a dangerous situation.

"The Barnett Government has already moved on the director general, the minister will be the next to lose his job," he said.

"There is no sign of the review to guide the department's future under these massive cuts and now the threat of a catastrophic disease outbreak is closer than ever."

WA's grower advocacy groups hold grave concerns for DAFWA and its key functions, such as managing biosecurity.

WAFarmers president Tony York condemned the staff freeze which meant key biosecurity job vacancies were unable to be filled.

He said the freeze could present biosecurity issues and also affect trade and research in other commodity areas.

"The minister's request for an exemption is fully warranted and should be taken very seriously, as staffing levels at DAFWA have left the department ill-equipped to deal with any potential outbreak of disease affecting livestock," Mr York said.

"While any outbreak would be of concern, it would be especially so if it were to happen while we were short staffed in these key positions because the Treasurer was unwilling to consider this as an urgent priority, so we implore Mr Nahan to make an exemption to the job freeze."

Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook said it would be too late to hire staff when a crisis hit.

"It's all very well for the department to say they've got the right people and for Dr Nahan to say they've got the funding, but we need the capacity to respond quickly," he said.

"The ag department is being ripped to pieces and this is probably the very last thing we would expect it to give up."

Mr Seabrook said the on-going effects of an ill-equipped DAFWA, that had already been mined for savings, could not be imagined if a crisis were to occur.

DAFWA has been the subject of criticism from farmers and grower groups over the past decade as successive State Governments have failed to provide adequate funding to maintain it as a relevant body for agriculture.



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