Importing and exporting for food businesses – understanding the fundamentals:


The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is responsible for the biosecurity conditions applying to imported food, and food safety.

The Biosecurity Import Conditions System (BICON) determines whether your food import:

  • Is permitted;
  • Is subject to import conditions;
  • Requires supporting documentation;
  • Requires treatment; or
  • Needs an import permit.

If you are commercially importing food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, foods containing meat, egg, milk, or other animal products you likely need to obtain an import permit prior to importing.

How to obtain an import permit:

  • Apply for a permit through BICON (Biosecurity Import Conditions system);
  • Most permits will be granted within 20 working days of application received and paid for – however this may take longer if:
    • The product requires technical assessment
    • Incomplete or incorrect information is provided by the applicant;
    • Additional information is required; or
    • It is a novel product or prepared in a new way.

Goods that require a permit but arrive without one (even when there is an application under consideration at the time) will be directed for export or destroyed.

The food you import must meed Australian food standards in terms of food safety, and labelling requirements:

  • Imported foods are monitored and inspected for compliance with food safety regulations;
  • Inspections involve a visual/label assessment and may include sampling of the food for analytical tests.

‘Risk’ foods:

Risk food may be subject to surveillance tests at a rate of 5% of consignments for monitoring purposes (risk food is food that poses a medium or high risk to human health and safety):

  • Dairy – tested for microorganisms;
  • Fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables – tested for microorganisms and aflatoxin;
  • Meat – tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and microorganisms;
  • Processed foods – tested for BSE, aflatoxin, hydrocyanic acid and microorganisms;
  • Seafood – tested for biotoxins and microorganisms, histamine;
  • Seaweed – tested for iodine and inorganic arsenic;
  • Spices and condiments – tested for microorganisms.

However if you hold a Food Import Compliance Agreement with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, your food will not be inspected or analysed because food safety controls are dealt with in the food import compliance agreement.

  • In this case your products are handled by your own food management system, audited by the Department.

Exporting food from Australia:

Again, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources controls exports of agricultural products. This includes:

  • Dairy products;
  • Eggs and egg products;
  • Fish and fish products;
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables;
  • Grains and seeds;
  • Live animals;
  • Meat and meat products; and
  • Organic produce

Exports must meet the importing country requirements and be fit for human consumption, accurately labelled, and fully traceable.

What do I need to do prior to exporting my food product?

  • All premises including fishing boats must be registered to undertake operations by the department;
  • You must complete an Export registration form (form EX26) and your establishment must be appropriately constructed with equipment and work practices to comply with export legislation;
  • Your establishment will be audited;
  • You can produce product for export after receiving a letter and certificate of registration; and
  • Some importing countries may also require Australian establishments to be listed in that country before export.

Check the importing country requirements:

  • Additional requirements may apply before you can export to some countries – check the individual country requirements.
  • The European Union requires that hormone growth promotants (HGPs) are never used on cattle intended for European meat market, and that these cattle are completely segregated from cattle using HGPs.

Your business must have an approved arrangement:

  • You must have a ‘How to Export’ document specifically written for each of your establishments, detailing the specific processes and procedures enabling export and covering all commodities for export and requirements of destination markets; and
  • Depending on what kind of food you are exporting you may need to document your export consignments and generate an export declaration number.

Specific requirements apply to some foods:

  • If you export beef, sheep or goat meat you must obtain a meat export licence;
  • Beef exported to the EU must be accredited by the department; and
  • If you are exporting livestock to Indonesia, Bahrain, Kuwait or Qatar you must have an export supply chain assurance system approved for all consignments.

Can we help you meet your legal obligations for importing or exporting your food products? If you have any questions speak to Sinclair + May, we are happy to assist you and get your importing/exporting food business up and running as quickly as possible.

This is general advice only. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

Published Feb 22, 2019

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