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Tuesday, 23 November 1999
Page: 12411

Dr THEOPHANOUS (6:14 PM) —I come to this debate on the Australia New Zealand Food Authority Amendment Bill 1999 [No. 2] with a certain amount of history, having been the parliamentary secretary for health with responsibility in the Keating government for the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. In fact it was while I was parliamentary secretary that we formed with New Zealand ANZFA and I was actually an official signatory, on behalf of the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, to the agreement between Australia and New Zealand that formed the authority. That time was one of great optimism as to what would happen to food standards and how the authority could play a very constructive and positive role in actually promoting our food industries in Australia and New Zealand, assisting the export industries and ensuring that we had the highest food standards.

Part of that atmosphere of optimism was due to the fact that some of the very thorny issues which had existed for quite a long time were tackled in that period when we were forming the authority with New Zealand. The issues involved in the labelling of food—what we should say about food being an Australian product or Australian made or Australian manufactured—were very complicated, as you might remember, Mr Deputy Speaker. They created a lot of division between the approaches of the consumer, industry and the union movement and we brought these three groupings together to resolve some of those questions. It was interesting that when the new government came in it sought to adopt some of our recommendations on this issue and claim the credit for itself. The `Australian made' issue was not satisfactorily resolved by this government and it still contains some difficulties which we have to address.

I was very disturbed when the first version of this legislation came through. We saw in this legislation an attempt to totally water down the enforcement role and the real regulatory role of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. It appeared at first that the government's response to the Blair report was to actually give a huge emphasis to deregulation and to the creation of codes of practice as a replacement for enforceable food standards.

Of course this created quite a bit of angst in this parliament amongst the people who know about this issue and, as a result of that, the whole matter was referred to a Senate committee for consideration. It is unfortunate to some degree that the Senate committee divided on party lines, with the government majority taking the view that there was no particular problem with this legislation whereas the ALP and the Democrats felt quite differently and that there were serious questions about this legislation. And there are serious questions. If we are to have a philosophy which moves away from enforceable food standards towards more and more non-binding codes of practice, how are we going to protect people, firstly, in the area of health and, secondly, by ensuring that we have the highest standards for our food resources when we are trying to publicise Australian food in both domestic and export markets as some of the best in the world?

This move, which I believe was primarily ideologically driven, although some say that it also has to do with representations from the food industry, has been re-examined as a result of the Senate inquiry to some degree and the government has made some concessions. However, the Labor Party is of the view that further amendments need to be made before the bill can be approved. We need to make it perfectly clear that this is not going to result in the wholesale dumping of enforceable food standards and the wholesale adoption of non-binding codes of practice, especially in areas where human health is a very serious issue.

When I was parliamentary secretary there were a number of such cases. You may remember the famous salami case in South Australia where a little girl died, and that led to a lot of legislation and also a lot of angst about why this had happened. I think even criminal charges were finally laid against people in relation to the way the factory had been operating. This is why the enforced codes are very important. But one of the issues which the government has avoided in its three years of operation, one which we were hoping to deal with in the negotiations between the states and the federal government on this question, is the issue of how enforcement was actually going to be put into place.

It is no good having so-called enforceable codes if the actual enforcement does not take place. The states have a responsibility under the act to enforce the standards that are determined at a national level, but the enforcement by the states has been, to say the least, a mixed picture. In some states, there has been great laxity in the enforcement of food standards, especially in restaurants, some supermarkets and places where there is a lot of food handling. This laxity in enforcement by the states has resulted in some very serious cases of food poisoning and illness. Even where the standard action existed—and I repeat that point: even where the standard action existed—we have had this situation.

I want to know how this legislation will help to make enforceable food standards a reality with respect to the states. What are we going to do? Have we negotiated any further agreements with the states? A lot of the state governments shift this responsibility down to local councils. There has been a movement firstly from the national enforced standard and then to the states. The states then say that it is the business of the local council. As we know, in many local councils certain things which ought to happen do not happen. There have been cases where council officers have overlooked their responsibilities or have not enforced the standards that they ought to enforce.

We have to get our act together with food standards, especially when they relate to human health. With so much food production, with so many different systems of food production and with the introduction of genetic engineering, we could be left with a practice that leads to laxity with respect to food standards and to serious health problems. Every now and then in this parliament we hear of examples of this. The minister even gave examples recently where some products which were dangerous products from a health point of view got through the system of the authority and somehow ended up on supermarket shelves.

Having said all that, I commend the authority for their role in setting standards. The way they do their scientific analysis and the way in which they take into account many of the health issues, not just here but internationally, is something that ought to be commended. The government, however, rather than recognising this, has reduced the staff of the ANZ Food Authority in the last few years. It should not be doing this. This is a very mean and short-term view of what is needed in this area because, once you enforce health standards—once you do have an industry that is known for its high standards—you have an opportunity to increase your export markets by emphasising the fact that your food is clean, that it is healthy, that it has passed tough standards and that it can therefore compete, so that when somebody in Asia or Europe or the Americas has access to Australian food, they will be able to say, `Aha! That food has passed tough standards. That food is worth buying. That food will not be any kind of threat to me or my family.' We should think about that, because competition in this area is not just a matter of price; it is also a matter of quality and a matter of standards, especially health standards.

We ought to be opposed to any lowering of standards and to the continuous development of non-binding codes of practice. You might ask, `What is wrong with non-binding codes of practice?' The problem with them is that they are non-binding. What happens when a manufacturer decides that, since this is non-binding, he will not bother with it? He cuts corners, as happened in the salami case years ago. The manufacturers were cutting corners in the production. They were breaching the regulations and cutting corners, but they were maintaining, `Other people are doing this sort of thing. We have to compete in the marketplace in terms of the cost, et cetera.' This is the problem with non-binding codes of practice, especially when the price mechanism operates as a factor.

Food for human consumption directly affects health issues, and we must not fall into this trap. I would like to hear a lot more from the minister about how he will make sure that these non-binding codes of practice will prevent ratbags from saying, `Well, it's non-binding. Therefore I will ignore the code of practice and I will produce food that lowers the standard.'

In discussions, the authority raised the issue of the World Trade Organisation agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures. It said that Australia has to be in harmony with these measures, and that in some cases we will have to reduce the high standards that we have in Australia vis-a-vis other countries in order to achieve the harmonisation. The Senate committee examined this issue in some detail, and it was certainly the view of the Labor members of the committee that the agreement—this particular WTO agreement—does not require a lowest common denominator approach to harmonisation. I quote: `It merely encourages harmonisation and requires standards that exceed the international benchmarks to be based on scientific justification or an appropriate risk assessment.' In other words, you do not have to go to the lowest common denominator, as determined by the WTO. You can have a higher standard, provided you can justify it for health and scientific reasons or through an appropriate risk assessment.

This is a very important point because it means that those who claim that we have to reduce to these lowest common denominators in order to meet the WTO arrangements are wrong. We should be saying to the WTO, `Look, we have scientific evidence in this particular case.'

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —Before the dinner break, I was making a number of points about the importance of ensuring the integrity of our food standards regulation system, ensuring that we do protect public health in relation to food standards and ensuring that Australia's reputation for very high standards in relation to food are retained. I expressed a number of concerns about some of the things proposed in this legislation. As I mentioned, the matter went to a Senate committee and, as a result of that deliberation, there was a majority report. There was also a minority report that recommended a number of amendments.

I understand from the parliamentary secretary that negotiations about the ALP's amendments have proceeded and that we are about to conclude a satisfactory resolution, at least from the point of view of the concerns that we have expressed. I hope that resolution does take place. I repeat the concerns that I have about ensuring that we do maintain enforceable standards. If we are going to have some deregulation of the system, we need to ensure that people do not abuse the existence of those deregulated codes because, if they do, we will be back where we were with serious issues concerning food standards.

I remind the House that, as I was saying before the dinner break, when I was parliamentary secretary in relation to this matter we did have some concerns about matters of food poisoning and about laxity of standards, especially in the area of food production and, in some cases, processed foods. We even had a little girl in South Australia who died as a result of eating poisoned salami. We do need to be vigilant in this matter. The government appears to be making an attempt to reach an accommodation across the parties in relation to this matter so that we can ensure that the ANZ Food Authority retains its teeth, retains its ability to enforce standards and to have enforceable standards and also retains its overall coverage and monitoring of the situation.

With respect to the charging of fees, I think a compromise has been reached and that is fair enough. That was not my main concern. My main concern is that, even when we have had enforceable standards, very often we have not required state governments and even local councils to actually enforce those standards. We have had cases of shops, restaurants and other places where food is handled where, unfortunately, the standards have not been met and we have had situations where people's health has been endangered.

The other aspect I referred to had to do with the harmonisation with the World Trade Organisation's requirements. As I was saying before, even the parliamentary committee, at least the Labor members of it, were of the view that the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures does not necessarily require Australia's food standards to be reduced. We do not want to get down to the lowest common denominator in food standards. What we want is to have Australia's reputation in relation to high food standards maintained by the ANZ Food Authority, and when we do that we will have a competitive edge in relation to food. The international requirement in terms of harmonisation is that in fact standards can be maintained. (Time expired)