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Standing Committee on Petitions
Selected petitions from the Brisbane metropolitan region presented since March 2011
House of Reps
- Parl No.
- Committee Name
Standing Committee on Petitions
Van Manen, Bert, MP
Jensen, Dennis, MP
Broadbent, Russell, MP
- System Id
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Content WindowStanding Committee on Petitions - 12/04/2013 - Selected petitions from the Brisbane metropolitan region presented since March 2011
JOHNSTON, Mr Colin Henry, Managing Director, Barnabas Fund Australia Ltd, Representative of the Pricipal Petitioner
Petition on Halal Food Labelling Practices
CHAIR: I now invite the representative for the principal petitioner of the petition, Mr Colin Johnston, Managing Director of Barnabas Fund, to the table to speak about the petition on halal food labelling practices. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing today is a formal proceeding of the parliament. I remind you, as I remind all witnesses, that the giving a false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Would you like to make an opening statement before we ask you some questions?
Mr Johnston : I am pleased that I have been called to give some further information about our petition that was submitted back in 2011. Sometimes these things just get accepted and nothing happens, so I am pleased. I have been involved with Barnabas since 2008 as a non-executive director, but in October last year I was appointed managing director, so I am full time with Barnabas Fund and I believe it is doing mighty work.
CHAIR: Thank you, and thank you for your immediate feedback. The petition asks that the House:
… ensure that halal food does not become the norm in Australia and to this end require the food industry to label all halal products clearly and give their customers a choice.
And halal meat, in particular. Are you concerned that there are a lot of halal products available that are not labelled in Australia?
Mr Johnston : Yes, certainly. That was one of the reasons why we put this petition together. Just to let you know, the Barnabas Fund Australia is a separate Australian company, but we are ultimately responsible to Barnabas Fund UK, which is an organisation set up over 20 years ago. The Australian fund has only been going for about eight years, but the UK organisation has been going for 20-odd years. The founding director of Barnabas International was born a Muslim and he converted to Christianity, so he set the organisation up to raise funds for persecuted Christians around the world, having gone through personal trauma himself. The other thing that he has a desire to do is to awaken the Western world and keep it up to date about Islam and the growing threat of Islam, particularly in the UK, where you can go down the street and you might feel like you are in a foreign country. There are a lot of immigration issues over there.
Patrick also wants Barnabas to be a voice in the community in raising issues that a lot of westerners, particularly, are not aware of, because we are all comfortable in our society and get very complacent. It is traditional about Australians: we are very laid-back and accept things as they are. As a result of what they found in the UK, with the growth of halal foods and them not being labelled openly, Patrick decided to do a petition through the UK and then asked us, in Australia, to do one similar. That was the reason for the petition.
Yes, we have done a lot of research. We are in association with other people. We have found that there are a lot of major chains like Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Franklins; companies like Kellogg's, MasterFoods and Nestle; and even foods like Kraft's Vegemite that do have some halal labels. A lot do not. So I guess the main issue for Barnabas is that we want to make sure that when consumers—just people like you and I—go and decide to buy something we are actually well informed on what we are buying and are given a choice.
I do not know if you are aware what 'halal' means. The essence of halal is that any food is forbidden for Muslims if it includes blood, pork, alcohol or the flesh of carnivores or carrion, or comes from an animal which has not been slaughtered in the correct manner, which includes having its throat slit. In Australia, of course, we have a lot of cattle that are butchered and slaughtered under Islamic conditions.
Halal meat actually has to be certified as such by one of several Islamic agencies. Of course, those certification agencies charge a fee to the wholesaler, and that fee is passed on to the retailer and then finally to customers. That is unknown to a lot of our consumers who are buying meat. They would be unaware of it. If it is not labelled it could very well be halal meat, which means that the animal has been slaughtered in a particular way. Also, there is a fee on top of it which goes to those certified agencies which ultimately tend to use the funds towards Islamic ideas. So it is part of an Islamic growth program around the world—part of getting funds is through this halal meat.
The original aim of the petition was just to make sure that people—particularly Christians, because we raise funds for Christians—have a choice. A lot of supermarkets put food out and the normal person does not know. We think that is wrong. We think that they should have a choice. If they knew that the animal was slaughtered under Islamic, halal conditions, they may not want to eat the meat. They are denied choice in a lot of examples. So we wanted to put this petition out just to raise the awareness of the average Australian.
Mr VAN MANEN: Mr Johnston, how does the process of slaughtering animals to comply with halal certification or practices compare with our normal regulations for slaughtering in our abattoirs?
Mr Johnston : In order for meat to be designated halal, it must come from an animal that has been slaughtered in such a way that its blood has been drained before consumption. The animal's throat is cut while a Muslim slaughterer proclaims—I will not talk the Islamic language—something which means: 'In the name of Allah; Allah is great.' Most Muslim slaughterers do not stun the animal first, as they believe that it is only if it is conscious that drainage of blood will be complete. That is one of our objections—that it is cruel to the animal because the animal is not stunned first.
Mr VAN MANEN: So if the regulatory requirements for our abattoirs are that animals must be stunned, how many of our abattoirs produce halal-certified meat?
Mr Johnston : A lot do. I cannot tell you the exact number, but there are a lot of slaughterhouses that do slaughter under the Islamic rules. Our position is to make the public aware of this, we believe, inhumane—it is not right for the animal. It is harmful. Slaughter without stunning is cruel and we believe, as Christians, it is contrary to the biblical call to care for God's creation.
CHAIR: Could it be that meat that is labelled halal and that has been slaughtered in an abattoir in our country may not have been stunned?
Mr Johnston : That is a possibility, yes. Look, there are some abattoirs that do not stun them. If they are not stunned, right, that is going to the Islamic rule: not stunned, their throat is cut and they say, 'In the name of Allah'.
CHAIR: Are you sure of that? Or is that just what you have heard people say?
Mr Johnston : Our evidence, our contacts—we are pretty sure that happens.
CHAIR: I just ask that because there has been a lot of debate in the past couple of years in relation to live animal exports and many Australians have grave concerns that some of our animals that go overseas have not been stunned before slaughter. I am sure that the community would be very, very concerned if animals were being slaughtered and not being stunned in our own country.
Mr Johnston : Good point.
Dr JENSEN: Mr Johnston, are you similarly concerned about kosher food—the labelling thereof?
Mr Johnston : Not as concerned I guess.
Dr JENSEN: I guess the question then is: why not, given that once again it is an issue of choice and once again you would assume that there would be a cost imposed on food being designated kosher?
Mr Johnston : Definitely. I know in the UK, where this was really heavily started, they approached a lot of the major supermarket chains over there about relabelling or making labels available and they came back and said the cost of this would just add to the cost of the product and so, no, they believed it would not be necessary. Australia: we are getting some, you know, but there are still quite a few products that are not specifically labelled.
Dr JENSEN: My question here is: why necessarily the concern about halal in terms of choice for the consumer and consumers making informed decisions versus something like kosher, where similarly you might want consumers to make informed decisions and you might have Christian groups who did not want to, for instance, pay the Jewish faith for, you know, doing the requisite testing to ensure that the food is kosher versus halal.
Mr Johnston : I would say that I cannot answer that one.
Dr JENSEN: Okay. If the food is not labelled, how do Muslims actually know that the food is halal or not? You are talking about informed choice in, for instance, meat. How does a Muslim go to a shopping centre and go to the meat section and purchase meat and know that that meat is halal, or indeed kosher, if it is not labelled?
Mr Johnston : I guess a lot of Islamic people, Muslims, get to know the butchers and retailers that do stock halal products, even though they may not be labelled. They do work in close communities, they live in close communities and word gets around. I guess that is how they would find out.
Dr JENSEN: Is it particularly meat that you are concerned with, or is it all products? You have halal chocolate. I know that, for instance, Cadbury's has certified that the chocolate is halal and they actually have it so marked as well.
Mr Johnston : Our prime focus has been on meat, because it is so prevalent in the Australian industry. But it is all halal certification. We are concerned that we should have a range of choice on all products, not just meat.
Dr JENSEN: Have you spoken to any food manufacturers in Australia about this issue? If so, what has been the response?
Mr Johnston : Yes, we have had one-on-one contacts. You normally get a person in charge of public relations, and their response is, 'Okay, we take note of your concern and we'll look at it'—in other words, not very positive. Unless you ring them and chase them up, you probably will not get a response. So we have tried. We have rung and raised our concern with various retail outlets. We do not stop trying.
Dr JENSEN: Okay, thank you.
Mr BROADBENT: Colin, from my reading, you obviously do not want any moneys paid by Christians going back to Muslim organisations to promote Islam. I have a friend who has a fairly major meatworks. His products are halal. The reason is that it is easier to have the whole place halal and have his chain continue going. It is a business decision so that when someone rings up for lamb he does not have to say, 'Is that halal?' He says, 'It's all halal.' So we do not have one group of lambs coming through that are and the next group of lambs coming through that are not, with different actions, different staff and a different exercise. We have a business running. The best thing that Ted can do is run the business to the best of his ability. If that means that part of that cost process is to go halal because part of the market would reject his product if it were not halal, he is not going to miss out on that part of the market. It is a business decision. So, whilst you want a choice, you can choose not to buy Ted's meat.
Mr Johnston : That is quite right, yes. The ultimate thing—
Mr BROADBENT: As a Christian, it does not bother me whether the meat is halal or not, because I am making profit-based decisions out of my own pocket as to what meat I am going to buy. I am in the one per cent of people in the world who can make a decision as to the quality of meat that they would buy. I am just trying to put this in some context of where we sit in the world. The fact that we can have these conversations sets us apart. We have just heard today about the difficulties in Palestine. We have heard today about the difficulties that truck drivers face, where we lose 250 truck drivers a year in this country, which is a disgrace. So I am not having a go at you but I am saying that, in the context of all that we are doing, there may be issues. We can have a conversation in this committee which you cannot have in other committees. There may be issues about the Islamisation of the West. I have been in a bit of trouble lately because I chose the rule of law over any other proposition that was being put forward, because I think it is terribly important in this country, and the rule of law will stand—not Islamic law and not Christian law, even though it is based on Judaeo-Christian values and other religious values which are similar. But, at the same time, we have to give reasonable consideration to all the people that live in our country. So I would put to you—and you might like to answer the question—that you are given a choice. Your choice is not to buy that product.
Mr Johnston : Yes, that is if it is labelled so that a person can see that one product is halal certified and another one is not. If we do not have that labelling, I do not have a choice. I go down and I have to buy it.
Mr BROADBENT: But if my friend Ted labels all his meat halal—a lot of it is for export; not all of it is for local consumption—why would he have some not marked halal if he has already gone through the process of having halal meat?
It is like this chicken lady here—it was halal product but, because it was not certified, she could not sell it. She got it certified and, I dare say, she is $120,000 a year better off.
Mr Johnston : I can see where you are coming from. In the UK, which is a Christian country, the growth of Islam through that country has expanded significantly over the years and they have introduced laws which cater specifically for the Muslims. In Australia, I hope to never see where we lose our Christian heritage—for example, you cannot go down the street and witness to people about Christianity. We are a very lucky country here. We have freedom of speech. The whole thing is we want to make sure that Christians or even non-Christians should have the right of choice. In some circumstances we see with halal that they are not given a choice—that is number one. Number two is that we are always of the view why should a very small minority—if you look at the percentage of Muslins in Australia, it is about 0.9 per cent—dictate the way we do things. I will give you an example: just recently the Qantas and Emirates deal was struck. I do not know whether you have heard that Qantas have now said they will not be dishing up any ham on flights. This is an Australian airline. So Australian consumers are being denied the right to eat Australian pork on Qantas planes because of the relationship with Emirates. I do not think that is right. Part of our choice is taken away.
Mr BROADBENT: Qantas is now an international company.
Mr Johnston : Yes, but it is still Australian.
Mr BROADBENT: It is only seen to be Australian.
Mr Johnston : Yes, but it is still Australian. I know there are ownerships overseas and all that, but it is still regarded as the Australian airline.
CHAIR: Mr Johnston, I would make the observation—and I have a conflict of interest here because I am a card-carrying Christian—that Christians are not pure either. When I was growing up in a little country town in New South Wales in the 1950s, we were made aware that Sanitarium products were produced by people of the Seventh Day Adventist faith and there was bigotry between that particularly faith and other Christian faiths. Fortunately, we are a lot more enlightened, tolerant and respectful today, as I am sure you are too.
Mr Johnston : Yes.
CHAIR: We understand where you are coming from, but in the main I think most of the products labelled halal, kosher, diabetic, organic, gluten free, whatever—
Mr BROADBENT: Do not believe the low fat ones.
CHAIR: Or low fat—exactly—there is a myriad of those in the supermarket. They are principally there to let people make choices about how they might impact on their diet, their health and other things. It is not necessarily to make an economic choice not to buy that because the product is produced by someone of a particular faith or belief. I think Mr Broadbent has made a very pertinent point in relation to the business constituent in his electorate who is producing all halal meat.
Dr JENSEN: Mr Johnston, if there is a significant market—as you are implying—for companies that choose not to buy halal products when given that choice, have you explored the possibility of going to various food manufacturers and suggesting that, as an alternative to what you are suggesting here, they maybe label their food 'halal-free' or 'non-halal' and see if that actually gives them a business advantage?
Mr Johnston : We have not done that. I take your point and I will take that back to the directors. It is a good point. But I go back to the idea, whether or not you are a Christian, that everyone should have a choice—then they can make their own decision. At the moment, because the labelling is not mandatory, some part of that choice is not free.
Dr JENSEN: Okay. Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Johnston, for your submission, your evidence here today and your responses to our questions. We do appreciate that. A copy of the Hansard record of your evidence will be provided to you so that you can check that you have been faithfully recorded. This evidence will also be provided to the minister and, no doubt, will be taken into account when a response is received.
We have now come to the end of our public hearing today in Brisbane, and I want to thank all participants for their time and effort in contributing to the hearing. We have covered a diverse range of issues, and the discussions have been very interesting, to say the least. As our participants today know, the committee's practice is not to make recommendations on the basis of this kind of public hearing, nor is it the committee's role to investigate petition issues beyond today's session. The aim of today's hearing is to amplify the issues raised by petitions, particularly in light of any government response. An official transcript will be produced which will be published on the committee's website in due course, for everyone to see, and a copy will be forwarded to the relevant ministers for their information.
Before I close the hearing, I would like to thank the officers of the Queensland Parliament for their assistance with the use of these committee facilities and thank the Broadcasting officer, Mr Kyle Hopkins, for the unfailing service he has provided here today.
Resolved (on motion by Mr Broadbent, seconded by Dr Jensen):
That this committee authorises publication of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.
Committee adjourned at 12:27