Two million containers—but how many pests?

Balancing the risks and benefits of trade and pests.
Balancing the risks and benefits of trade and pests.

Every visitor to Australia quickly learns that we take quarantine seriously. Our country is free of many pests, weeds and diseases that are widespread overseas. Our relative disease-freedom is good news for our people, for agriculture and for the environment.

Visitors’ luggage is screened at the airports. But what about the two million shipping containers that enter Australia each year? How do we strike a balance between open trade and quarantine?

It’s all about risk. Quarantine officers inspect the outside of every container. But how many, and which containers need more detailed inspection?

The Australian Centre of Excellence for Risk Analysis was set up in 2006 at the University of Melbourne to answer these kinds of questions. They’re building state-of-the-art risk analysis methods, and are developing risk interpretation tools. And their first target is biosecurity.

Statistician Dr Andrew Robinson has reviewed the inspection regime for air and ship containers entering Australia and has developed a series of risk recommendations which will help the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service to better deploy its people to the higher risk imports. The recommendations range from setting up a risk team to prioritise work through to data mining—using techniques similar to those used by financial regulators to track the movement of money.

For more information: Australian Centre of Excellence for Risk Analysis, Andrew Robinson,,