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Stink bug fouls up Australian airfreight

Regulators say transshipments in Singapore must be fumigated, or heat treated, like sea cargo

The brown marmorated stink bug is an invasive pest that global trade has helped spread around the world. Australia requires certain cargoes to be treated for the pests before arrival. (Photo: Flickr/Esin Üstün)

The Australian government has denied an industry request for hybrid air-sea shipments to be exempt from rules requiring vessels and freight from high-risk countries to undergo treatment to kill the brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive pest that is a threat to crops.

Australia’s air cargo market was nearly cut off from the rest of the world when the coronavirus forced international airlines to close down passenger networks last spring. In response, the Department of Agriculture gave freight managers permission to avoid biosecurity measures if shipments moved by air to Singapore and completed their journey by vessel.

Regulators agreed to the arrangement because Singapore is not considered at high risk of having a large stink bug population, it was late in the season for stink bug activity, and few of the pests had been detected in air shipments, said Sal Milici, head of border and biosecurity for the Freight & Trade Alliance, which represents supply chain interests in Australia, in an email.

The exemption only applied to airfreight loaded into ocean containers in Singapore. 

With border closures still in effect, importers continue to face a shortage of transport space.

Australian officials, however, declined to waive the phytosanitary standards for air transshipments for the upcoming period, saying the risk is too high because the stink bug is more mobile in the early months of the season, which starts in September. The department promised to review the data and revisit its decision after December. 

“The direct pathway for air cargo … is a risk for brown marmorated stink bug [BMSB], however it is currently considered a lower risk than the sea cargo pathway. Historically the riskiest time of year for air cargo for BMSB occurs early in the season when BMSB are on the move,” the Department of Agriculture said in a statement. “In the past two seasons our earliest detections of BMSB have been in the air cargo and traveller pathways. It is for this reason we will not be extending the exemption applied late last season, in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, to exempt mixed pathway consignments.”

The department said it could require treatment of air shipments if more stink bugs are detected in that mode. 

The brown marmorated stink bug is native to Asia and was introduced to many countries, including the United States, during the 1990s, likely by stowing away on shipping containers, according to agricultural and insect specialists. 

The stink bug gets its name because its glands release a pungent odor, variously described as cooking herb cilantro, rancid meat, sulfur and ammonia, as a defense mechanism when it feels threatened, or when it is crushed. It is considered a serious agricultural pest that feeds on numerous fruits, vegetables, trees and field crops. 

Inserting its feeding tube into plants makes them visually unappealing and inedible. Physical damage to fruit includes pitting and scarring, sometimes leading to a mealy texture. The injury makes the fruit unmarketable as a fresh fruit and can even render the crop unusable for processed products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to physical damage, the wounds caused by feeding can provide an entryway for disease to attack the host fruit or plant.

Australia exports about three-quarters of its farm production, according to the National Farmers’ Federation. 

The government considers shipments from more than three dozen countries to be at high risk. High-risk goods, including cork and glass ware, from high-risk nations require mandatory heat or fumigation treatment, usually in the country of origin. Other goods are subject to higher levels of inspection. Australia lists the U.K. among seven countries considered emerging risks.

The Australian government established an emergency program this year to incentivize airlines to supply cargo airlift after international passenger service virtually disappeared, threatening agricultural producers and fishermen who depend on export markets.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]