Determined to protect their unique flora and fauna from pests and diseases, island nations Australia and New Zealand have some of the strictest biosecurity border requirements in the world.

Authorities are using personnel, detector dogs and the latest technology to keep unwanted visitors out, with threats to both countries coming in many forms.


Protecting Australia

Among the most significant animal disease threats to Australia is African Swine Fever (ASF). The country has yet to experience an outbreak, despite its global spread having extended to neighbouring nations Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea.

“ASF’s changing distribution means it remains a significant biosecurity threat to our country,” a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) told Airports International. ASF affects domestic and wild pigs, causing serious illness and death. “An outbreak would be devastating for our pig industry and also damage our trade and economy,” he added. Not only can the virus be spread by people or objects that have been in contact with infected pigs, but it can also survive for long periods in uncooked, frozen or cured pig-meat products.

Australia also remains free from lumpy skin disease (LSD), which affects cattle and buffalo, and is spreading throughout Asia. “An outbreak of LSD in Australia would be difficult and costly to eradicate as it may require extensive animal movement control and vaccination programmes,” said DAFF. The disease is spread by biting flies, mosquitoes and ticks and contaminated items. While there are strict import conditions to protect Australia from diseases entering through traveller, cargo and mail pathways, the disease could also enter through natural pathways such as insects blowing in on monsoon winds, DAFF confirmed.

Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease are common in many parts of the world, but Australia is free of the highly contagious disease that affects all cloven-hoofed animals. The virus can be carried on people’s clothing and footwear and can survive in frozen, chilled and freeze-dried foods. DAFF estimates that a large outbreak of FMD across multiple Australian states could have a direct economic impact of around A$80bn (£42bn) over ten years.

CVC Covid testing

The Covid-19 pandemic prompted changes in government approaches to pathogen testing 

DAFF is closely monitoring outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which can cause disease and death in chickens, but can also impact other species, most recently reported in dairy cattle and goats in the United States. It can also impact wildlife, with Australia keen to protect its unique endemic fauna. The latest H5 viruses have been reported in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, North America, South America and even Antarctica.

The pest problem

Then there are the multitude of pests which threaten Australia’s shores, including the Khapra Beetle, Varroa Mite and Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. The Khapra Beetle is a serious risk to stored grains, rice, oilseeds and dried foodstuffs. “If the beetle was to establish here, many of our trading partners would reject stored produce from Australia. Given that Australia exports much of the grain we grow, the beetle could cause huge losses,” said DAFF.

The Varroa Mite is one of the greatest threats to Australia’s honey and honey bee pollination plant industries, while the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug is a hitchhiker which can stow away in all manner of imported goods and personal effects, including suitcases. It feeds off more than 300 hosts, including fruit trees and woody ornamentals, and is not easily controlled with pesticides.

“The department has rigorous and highly effective import declaration, inspection and import treatment requirements in place to reduce the chance that these pests and diseases will get into and establish in Australia,” DAFF said. It also constantly monitors the biosecurity status of Australia’s trading partners, using evidence-based risk assessments. At airports and sea ports, border requirements cover incoming passengers, cargo, mail and returning vessels to ensure biosecurity risks are managed.

Aircraft wastewater testing helps monitor the spread of pathogens

Threats to New Zealand

New Zealand also has strong biosecurity protections in place to prevent pests and diseases entering the country and damaging its NZ$57bn (£27bn) primary sector export industry and unique environment, according to Mike Inglis, Biosecurity New Zealand Northern Regional Commissioner.

Some of the major threats to New Zealand are invasive species which have the potential to cause huge losses for the country’s growers. These include various species of fruit fly and the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, which could significantly affect New Zealand’s fruit and vegetable industries, Inglis noted. Animal diseases, particularly FMD, avian influenza, and African swine fever, are also a major concern to New Zealand, as are plant diseases. “These include pathogens such as new strains of kiwifruit vine canker bacteria and potato spindle tuber viroid – a pathogen that causes disease and potential loss of production, mainly in potatoes, tomatoes, pepinos and capsicum,” he explained.

Passengers entering Australia and New Zealand must complete declaration forms detailing travel information and whether they are carrying certain food, plant material and animal products. Both countries also have bins in their airports, allowing passengers to dispose of food and any other risky items before they go through the biosecurity process.

Biosecurity Melbourne

Biosecurity screening at Melbourne Airport

Arriving international air travellers who fail to declare biosecurity risk goods face infringement notices and fines in both countries. In the five years since 2019, nearly 22,000 international travellers received an infringement for breaching Australia’s biosecurity rules, according to DAFF, with infringements in 2023 increasing to 5,595 (from 3,109 in 2022) with the rise in international traffic. Fines range from A$626 (£327)to $6,260 (£3,270).

Visitors can also have their visa cancelled, be removed from the country and barred from returning for three years. From October 2019 to December 2023, there were 22 visa cancellations based on biosecurity grounds. An international student had his visa cancelled and was fined A$3,756 (£1,962) for taking more than 2kg of cooked meat, eggs, and frangipani flowers into Adelaide Airport and not declaring them on the Incoming Passenger Card.

In 2023 alone, 393,000 biosecurity risk items were stopped at Australian international airports. Of 19 million international travellers arriving in 2023, some 7.5 million underwent biosecurity screening. Among the nearly 500 tonnes of biosecurity risk material that were intercepted, common items included beef, rice, pork, seeds, mixed herbs, spices and chillies.

For unintentional offences in New Zealand, the maximum fine is NZ$400 (£190), but deliberate smuggling of risky goods can result in prosecution, leading to a fine of up to NZ$100,000 (£48,000) and/or imprisonment. Last year, officers in New Zealand issued 6,514 infringement notices.

Canine champions

Both countries use a multi-layered approach comprising quarantine officers, sniffer dogs and technology to stop pests and diseases entering their countries.

Australia first used biosecurity detector dogs in 1992. DAFF said last year dogs screened more than 806,000 passengers, resulting in the interception of more than 32,000 biosecurity risk items.

Biosecurity dogs are specially trained to detect nine target odour groups which equate to more than 200 biosecurity risk commodities. These include fresh fruit, vegetables and plant material, seeds, eggs, dairy, meat, Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs and Queen Bees. Detector dogs undergo a six-to-eight-week training programme at a national training facility in Brisbane, with the detector dog handlers completing the biosecurity officer foundation programme and a 12-week handler development programme.

Labradors now make up the entire biosecurity detector dog fleet in Australia, with beagles previously used. “Labradors have an extraordinary sense of smell, are co-operative and gentle with people and possess extreme hunt, food and retrieve drives. Their tall stature and agility make it easy for them to screen larger items,” said DAFF.

Labrador Ghost, who sniffed out the 2kg of meat brought in by an international student to Adelaide earlier this year, has stopped nearly 400 biosecurity risk items from entering Australia in his first year of service. Top dog, Sydney-based Vespa, meanwhile, intercepted 1,300 biosecurity risk items in 2023, the most of any detector dog in the country.

The Traveller-based Genomic Surveillance programme has helped fill gaps in global disease surveillance

New Zealand employs nearly 500 quarantine officers to screen arriving passengers and other entry points. “Their role includes assessing the risk of every arriving passenger to determine the likelihood of them carrying biosecurity items,” said Inglis. “This involves reviewing declaration details and may include questioning individual passengers and checking declared items. Travellers identified as posing higher risk may have their baggage screened by X-ray or physically inspected by an officer,” he added.

At New Zealand’s international airports, detector dogs usually screen passengers using Biosecurity New Zealand express lanes, but they may also work behind X-ray machines. New Zealand primarily uses Beagles as they are “friendly, intelligent and have a keen sense of smell”, said Inglis, adding they are particularly good at detecting plants, seeds and animal products. “We currently have 37 detector dog teams – handler and dog – and are planning to recruit five more teams this year,” he told Airports International.


The role of technology

Technology also plays a part thanks to the latest advances. In 2020, Australia awarded a contract to OSI Systems for its Rapiscan RTT 110 screening systems and software algorithms for the automated detection of biosecurity risk items. Two new cutting-edge 3D X-ray units were installed at Brisbane and Melbourne international airports last August as part of a trial, screening incoming baggage for biosecurity risks before their collection by passengers in the arrivals hall.

“The 3D X-ray units have been integrated with existing back-of-house baggage handling systems and have been developed in close partnership with Brisbane Airport Corporation and Australia Pacific Airports [Melbourne],” stated DAFF. Scanned bags are then traced from the carousel to marshal points and inspection areas in the arrivals hall for more efficient processing and inspections.

Biosecurity officers assess 3D X-ray images from a remote screening room, separate to officers in the arrivals hall. “They’ll be supported by assistive biosecurity detection algorithms to efficiently identify and examine concealed items that could pose a biosecurity risk,” DAFF explained. In the next stage of the trial, passenger intervention will begin around June.

“3D X-ray has been twice as effective in an airport environment and more than three times more effective in mail centres when compared to other detection technologies,” the department said.

“The installations are an important first step toward enabling more informed biosecurity decision making while improving the passenger experience with a faster and more streamlined clearance process,” it added.

Biosecurity beagle

New Zealand uses Beagles for detection work, due to their intelligence and keen sense of smell

New Zealand and Australia are jointly evaluating the new screening technology. “We have already installed and are carrying out further testing of state-of-the-art 3D scanning equipment, which is potentially 2.5 times more effective at detecting biosecurity threats in baggage than traditional 2D X-ray technology. The new technology has the potential to automatically detect risk items in the future,” Inglis told us.

He noted that New Zealand is continually looking at ways to use new technology to improve biosecurity screening and to move passengers faster. A joint digital border programme with other New Zealand border agencies saw the introduction last year of digital declarations – the NZ Traveller Declaration (NZTD) – for all passengers, which can be completed online before entry into the country. This process allows passengers to be informed and educated about their biosecurity obligations before they arrive. Questions can be modified quickly in response to new or emerging risks.

“Ultimately, by giving us access to more traveller information and data, NZTD will help Biosecurity NZ assess and address future biosecurity risks. Over time, we will identify new opportunities for using NZTD to continue to improve our biosecurity system, including the introduction of automated border processes that will speed up entry into New Zealand for low-risk travellers,” Inglis concluded. 

Ghost detection dog

Ghost stopped nearly 400 biosecurity risk items from entering Australia in his first year of service

Further reading: Confiscated: strange but true

There were some unusual items among the nearly 400,000 biosecurity items stopped by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) at Australian international airports in 2023.

A passenger arriving at Adelaide Airport, for example, tried to enter the country with dried duck kidneys, while six live Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs in a horse saddle accompanied a Brisbane visitor. Other interesting finds at Brisbane included tarragon plants and a live slug.

A passenger arriving at Canberra Airport brought with them holy water from the Ganges River, while another arriving at Coolangatta came with eight packets of sausages. A frog hitched a ride in a plastic bag with a passenger arriving at Melbourne, while a live toad tried to enter Sydney.

Banana tree Perth Airport

Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry officials seized a whole banana tree – roots included – at Perth International Airport

Further reading: Focus on pathogens

A number of governments have changed their approach to pathogens and border control since the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, established its Traveller-based Genomic Surveillance (TGS) programme at US airports in September 2021 in conjunction with cell programming and biosecurity expert Ginkgo Biosecurity and pathogen screening company XpresCheck. The programme is now in place at nine US airports, among them Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.

“The TGS programme continues to evolve and fill gaps in global disease surveillance,” said a CDC spokesperson. “It began during the COVID-19 pandemic, acting as an early warning system to detect new and rare variants of SARS-CoV-2, and has expanded to include influenza A/B, respiratory syncytial virus, and other respiratory pathogens.” Prior to the pandemic, no such testing was conducted.

“Results obtained during the COVID-19 pandemic proved that this programme can fill gaps in global disease tracking and the programme is constantly looking for ways to evolve,” said the CDC spokesperson.

Today the programme helps enhance tracking and genomic characterisation of over 30 pathogens. “Typically, for many pathogens, very little data is collected on them outside of major outbreak periods. TGS is different; it takes an ‘always-on’ approach that helps public health officials have ongoing awareness of infectious disease circulation and evolution,” a Ginkgo spokesperson said.

Ginkgo’s Canopy monitoring programme, deployed to rapidly detect and monitor biological threats with the potential to cross national borders, is in operation at 12 airports globally, testing aircraft wastewater. “We routinely stand up programmes modelled on the TGS outside the US, including in Qatar, Rwanda and Botswana. We have active programmes or pilots in 14 countries – from Panama to Madagascar,” the spokesperson told Airports International.

In Doha, Ginkgo is building a state-of-the-art pathogen monitoring centre, the Centre for Unified Biosecurity Excellence (CUBE-D). It will support analysis of data collected from pathogen monitoring stations in Qatar and partner countries, including from airports, acting as an early warning system. Samples will be scanned for signals of emerging outbreaks, providing insight into how pathogens travel and evolve. “As a central connectivity hub with over two-thirds of the world’s population within an eight-hour flight, we believe Qatar and its free zones are ideally positioned to anchor these bioradar efforts,” Ginkgo said.