Canberrans khapra beetle discovery leads to biosecurity award

Brett Burdett discovered an influx of dangerous khapra beetles in Australia after he found them when he purchased his new fridge. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Brett Burdett discovered an influx of dangerous khapra beetles in Australia after he found them when he purchased his new fridge. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

It may have been a small discovery, but Brett Burdett's eagle eyes may have saved Australia more than $15 billion and protected some of the country's most valuable crops.

After purchasing a new fridge earlier this year, the Kambah resident noticed several beetle larvae had been lying in the fridge's polystyrene packaging.

While it may at first seemed like a harmless insect, the discovery turned out to be the devastating khapra beetle, a foreign species known to wreak havoc on the agriculture sector, should it get into the environment.

The discovery of the beetle led to the forced closure of multiple Good Guys stores across Canberra by biosecurity officials for several days, as they sought to prevent the further spread of the invasive species.

Mr Burdett's efforts in preventing the outbreak of the devastating pest led him to be bestowed with an Australia Biosecurity Award earlier this month, taking out the community category.

The Canberran said it was his interest in bugs that first led him to suspect the insects hidden in his new fridge might not be that friendly.

"I could not identify the larvae as they were unlike any I had seen before, though I suspected they must have come from overseas, rather than a local infestation," Mr Burdett said.

"Since the fridge was manufactured in Thailand, my wife and I suspected that they came from there."

The species have been known to hitchhike in shipping containers that have previously carried high-risk items, such as grain and dried food products, and can often be found in the cracks and wall linings of the containers.

The tiny adult Khapra beetle (top) and juvenile larvae (bottom) pictured on grains of rice. Picture: Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

The tiny adult Khapra beetle (top) and juvenile larvae (bottom) pictured on grains of rice. Picture: Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

After discovering the beetle in his home, Mr Burdett reported the species to biosecurity officials.

"Upon the beetles being identified, departmental officials arrived and explained the situation, collected and bagged the fridge packaging and sprayed all of the areas where the khapra beetles might have escaped," he said.

"When I heard khapra were one of the top pests needing to be kept out of Australia, I wasn't surprised at the response."

Despite his initial discovery of the beetle in his fridge, Mr Burdett said he was surprised when he was told about his award win.

"I did not know the award existed and I was unaware that someone had put my name forward," he said.

"My initial response was that it should have gone to my wife, as it was her that encouraged me to email biosecurity and it was at her suggestion that we collect samples of the beetle for analysis."

Following the initial discovery, officials moved to trace the same shipment of fridges, which led to operations being carried out in the ACT and New South Wales.

An outbreak of khapra beetle in Australia would not only have cost billions of dollars, but also would have threatened the country's status as a khapra-free country.

The loss of that status would have meant grain grown in Australia would be rejected by trading partners, given large amounts of grains and crops are exported.

The Department of Agriculture's head of biosecurity Andrew Tongue said the khapra beetle was the number one priority pest for grain in Australia.

"If it established here, it would be devastating for our grain industry, exports and farmers," Mr Tongue said.

"Mr and Mrs Burdett's actions demonstrate the important role the community plays in safeguarding Australia from biosecurity risks.

"Biosecurity is everyone's responsibility and we all need to do our part to protect our environment, industries, plants and animals from pests and diseases."

This story How Brett's quick thinking saved Australia $15 billion first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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