The peak body representing Australian customs brokers, freight forwarders and importers says emerging biosecurity threats are causing significant delays for importers to gain access to cargo, including agricultural machinery.
Freight and Trade Alliance director Paul Zalai said labour-intensive processes, used by federal biosecurity officers physically assessing import documentation, were adding to the cost of container detention fees, conservatively estimated at $500 million a year.
"It is a broken and hopelessly outdated system, unable to keep pace with increases and changing patterns of international trade - despite the best efforts of officers, the department cannot keep up and industry is paying the price," Mr Zalai said.
Recent biosecurity risks facing Australia include foot and mouth disease, Varroa mite, Japanese encephalitis, African Swine Fever, lumpy skin disease and Brown Marmorated Stink Bug.
Mr Zalai said Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry used labor intensive processes, with biosecurity officers physically assessing import documentation and selecting consignments based on a set criteria for inspection.
"Whilst document assessment processing times fluctuate, inspections, and the issuing of import permits, can take weeks to complete," he said.
That added to storage costs and generated significant container detention fees, administered by foreign owned shipping lines.
"Shipping lines don't care why there is a delay in returning empty containers yet insist they are returned within prescribed timeframes to add to their stockpile, congesting our port precincts," he said.
The FTA called on the government to introduce immediate relief measures.
'We well and truly understand the need to protect against biosecurity risks and would be prepared to pay additional transactional fees on the proviso that this directly translates to commensurate improved and immediate trade facilitation measures." he said
Tractor and Machinery Association Australia executive director Gary Northover said the situation had been "terrible" for a long time.
"Those issues are ones our members have been dealing with, for some time now," Mr Northover said.
"The cost of containerised freight means they are looking to put more freight onto roll on-roll off, even though it might go in a container, just to keep it moving.
"In the recent past we have heard stories of machinery that has been send back to Singapore, to be decontaminated, before it can be brought into the country."
He said the whole supply chain had been "a bit fractured.
"Our customers are rather accepting of the situation and understand this is the way of the world, but we have stories of importers who have not necessarily lost faith, but won't try and commit to precise delivery dates because it is impossible to do so," Mr Northover said.
If a particular biosecurity issue was discovered on a machine it would affect the entire shipment, not just the particular piece of equipment in question, he said.
Mr Northover said while the industry was supportive of rigorous biosecurity checks there were staff shortages and the skill level in evaluating agricultural machinery was "not quite there".
He said TMAA regularly shared its concerns with DAFF.
"There's a need for more staff, better training, more resources, ability to process more imports and more contamination control on deck here," he said.
A DAFF spokesman said the government was aware of delays for some importers, due to the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and accompanying economic, trade and workforce shortages.
"These events are causing significant disruptions to global supply chains, international shipping and trade and have prompted a move from "just in time" cargo to "just in case" cargo," the spokesman said.
"This, in turn, is increasing workload volumes and generating inspection delays, notably of up to four weeks across the major ports of Sydney and Melbourne.
While the department's priority must be to keep harmful pests and diseases that could devastate Australia's agricultural industries, economy and environment out of the country, it noted some causes were beyond its control.
"Industry concerns around delays are exacerbated by detention fees (fees charged to importers by shipping lines to encourage the quick deconsolidation and return of leased shipping containers) which the government does not control as they are commercial arrangements within industry," the spokesman said.
The department was redirecting resources from other areas to assist with inspection and booking functions.
"We are working with industry on new ways of doing business to reduce regulatory burden and costs, and make it easier for industry to comply with import requirements," the spokesman said
"In the short to medium term, we are working on a variety of automation solutions which includes robotic processing, computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
"We are also growing the capacity and skills of our biosecurity workforce."
The department had engaged 156 more biosecurity officers since July 1, 2021.
"However, attracting and retaining staff in a tight labour market, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, remains a challenge," the spokesman said.