The European Union has decided to request that Australia enter into WTO formal consultations on its quarantine system for imports of agricultural products, the European Commission said.

Consultations are the first step in the WTO dispute settlement process and, if they prove unsuccessful, entitle the EU to ask for a WTO Panel to be set up to rule on the legality of the Australian system.

EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said: "Australia has built a quarantine system which is highly efficient at blocking the import of agricultural products into this country. We believe this system flagrantly breaches WTO rules, despite Australia's constant claims to be the only beacon of free agricultural trade. The EU will use WTO procedures to ensure that Australia practises what it preaches on agricultural market access."

The EU claims that the Australian quarantine system flagrantly breaches WTO rules, set out in the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), which covers regimes dealing with human, animal and plant health.

The commission said that the EU understands Australia’s view that as an island it is free from many animal and plant diseases prevalent in the rest of the world, and that it takes a conservative approach to quarantine risks. The EU said it does not dispute the status of Australia in this respect, nor its right to set an appropriate level of protection, but it does however consider that "Australia should not abuse its privileged position to unfairly protect its own market and producers by imposing quarantine rules which block imports for many years without scientific justification".