Quarantine in Australia: Duck giblets and necks, hard-boiled eggs prohibited

Duck giblets and necks. Mooncakes and hard-boiled eggs. Under Australia's tough quarantine system, airline passengers are banned from bringing them into the country and yet they were all found Thursday in passengers' luggage.

Australia, which already has some the world's strictest quarantine checks, has steadily beefed up its scrutiny of incoming travelers since the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus first emerged in 2003.

And it's paying dividends. The closest Australia has come to a bird flu scare were a few pigeons imported from Canada which were found to be carrying bird flu antibodies while they were being held in a quarantine facility.

Early Thursday morning, in just 90 minutes of checks, quarantine officials seized a packet of cooked duck giblets from a couple arriving from Hong Kong, and an egg-filled pastry, or mooncake, from another passenger on the same flight.

A plastic bag filled with cooked duck necks was also seized, and an elderly couple from Canada was forced to hand over half a dozen hard-boiled eggs.

All of the passengers had declared their food items to quarantine officials in line with Australian law, but seemed genuinely unaware that they posed a risk for spreading bird-related diseases such as H5N1, the quarantine officers who served them told The Associated Press. Passengers weary from the long flight to Australia have to traipse past several bins set up for them to dump banned food and make it past beagles trained to detect food before they even reach the quarantine checks.

With fears of bird flu growing daily, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service now screens every single airline passenger arriving from any of 11 countries deemed a "high risk" for bird flu, according to Edwina Durnford, the AQIS manager at Sydney Airport, which handles half of all international flights arriving in Australia.

"If you've been in an avian influenza country, then you're a risk to us," Durnford told The AP. "Our role is then to seek you out and screen you to make sure you're not carrying any risk products."

"Nearly 60 percent of all passengers are first time travelers to Australia, so they may not be aware of the quarantine process," Durnford said. "It's all about the education process."

In addition to X-raying or hand-checking the luggage of all passengers from high risk countries, AQIS has also posted large signs around Australian airports urging travelers to declare their goods.

Last month, AQIS officials handed out free mooncakes at a festival in Sydney's Chinatown, along with flyers advising the community about the risks of importing egg and meat-filled mooncakes from overseas.

The agency sees itself as the front line for stopping the bird flu virus from entering Australia, Durnford said, and stops an estimated 92 percent of high risk products from entering the country.

Last year, for example, the agency seized more than 12 tons of bird-related products including 5.7 tons of eggs and egg products and 12 kilograms (26 pounds) of feathers from incoming passengers, she said. People who break quarantine laws can face on-the-spot fines of 220 Australian dollars (US$167; Ђ138), and penalties of more than A$60,000 (US$45,487; Ђ37,720) or 10 years' imprisonment for serious breaches.

But Durnford said AQIS was more interested in educating people than slapping them with fines, reports the AP. I.L.

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