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Monday, 22 November 2010
Page: 1828

Senator CROSSIN (9:59 PM) —I rise tonight to speak about an issue that is being strongly supported by the various seafood industry bodies around Australia, and that is the matter of clear labelling of country of origin for all our seafood, both fresh and processed. During this year’s federal election the National Seafood Industry Alliance issued its policy statement, and one of its key policy positions was the mandatory labelling of seafood to ensure that consumers are able to make informed choices about their seafood. Since 2006 it has been a legal requirement that unprocessed seafood sold to the Australian public must be clearly labelled with its country of origin. However, this requirement is only binding on retailers of fresh seafood. So, if you are selling fish for immediate consumption—for example, restaurants, clubs, bars or your local fish and chip shop—you are exempt from this labelling requirement. In this country, only when you buy fresh fish in any fish shop or at the market is that product clearly labelled as ‘Australian’ or ‘imported’. But when we go into your local pub for a counter meal of fish and chips or to a high-end seafood restaurant, you have no idea whether what you are ordering is Australian caught or imported. A restaurant may choose to disclose the origin of the seafood it is serving but it is certainly not required to do so—except, I am delighted to say, in the Northern Territory, another area it is a leader in. In November 2008 the Northern Territory government put in place licensing conditions under the Northern Territory Fisheries Act which require retailers serving imported seafood for public consumption to clearly identify if the product is in fact imported. This is the first such law in Australia. Why is such a law important?

Senator Parry interjecting—

Senator CROSSIN —Yes, Senator Parry, and I will pick that up. It is so that, if you are eating barramundi, you know it is Australian barramundi. That is correct. I have another colleague here championing the cause. I am delighted. This is the start of a campaign and I can say we have already got someone else signed up to it. That is great.

The National Seafood Industry Alliance, in its submission to a review of seafood labelling law and policy in November 2009, stated that research by the Fisheries and Research Development Corporation in 2006 had shown consumption of seafood had increased overall but the increase was bigger out of home—in restaurants and clubs—than at home. With more people eating out, the alliance therefore saw this loophole in mandatory country of origin labelling as ‘allowing for systemic deception of the Australian consumer in the food service industry in relation to their seafood consumption choices’. Northern Territory Seafood Council Chairman, Rob Fish, backs up the preference for local produce. In an article in the NT News business section in September this year he said:

As a result of strong consumer demand for local product we are seeing more local options appear on menus all round the Territory.

And in August this year at a conference on the Gold Coast, the Australian Prawn Farmers Association also raised this matter. Their president, Nick Moore, said that, while current requirements for fresh seafood labelling were adequate, ‘the system was let down by the glaring omission of labelling at restaurants and fish and chip shops’.

I raise this because I want to make sure that people have this on their agenda as they go to buy their seafood over Christmas and the festive season. Australian consumers, both residents and visitors alike, have shown a strong preference for Australian produced seafood. However, the broad perception that much of our seafood is produced in Australia is now being used to mislead many seafood consumers. There is a strong perception that the seafood we eat at dining venues or take-away outlets is Australian product when in fact over 70 per cent of that seafood that is sold in Australia is imported. The National Seafood Industry Alliance believes it is incumbent on government to mandate compulsory labelling for all seafood to ensure that this deception is removed. This will not only ensure that the consumer can make an informed choice; it will help to ensure the sustainability of the wild and farmed harvest, which in turn maintains the viability of the seafood industry in this country.

It is perplexing that only in the Northern Territory can you sit down at a seafood restaurant and look at the menu and know where what you want to eat has come from—and when you buy Northern Territory seafood you are buying fresh produce that comes from pristine waters in one of the most heavily regulated fisheries in the world. Yet, for many years, Territorians did not realise that many of the barramundi, prawns and other tropical species gracing their plates were actually frozen imports, sometimes coming from countries which have none of the strict environmental health and export controls that Australian fishermen have to observe.

Any seafood not harvested from Australian waters has to be clearly labelled as imported, and this label must be used on menus, menu boards, brochures, flyers and any other advertising. While this is not strictly country of origin labelling, it does allow the consumer to see whether they are being offered ‘Australian product’ or ‘imported product’—the two terms you will see most predominantly on the menus in restaurants in the Northern Territory. Cheap imports are damaging the high quality reputation of Australian seafood. Evidence shows that the Australian consumer is willing to pay more for quality seafood. I ask you to test that. If you go into a supermarket and you can see imported prawns and Australian prawns, even though the Australian prawns are a little bit dearer, nine times out of 10 that is the product you will buy because that is the product you can rely on for having the best taste.

The quality of our seafood is, I believe, well accepted, and it is on quality that we can compete with the imported product. Places such as Cairns and Darwin are known for seafood, and tourists are eager to eat some of our iconic products, such as our barramundi and snapper, in the restaurants that abound in such towns. I am mystified as to why we do not have this mandatory labelling requirement nationally. Mandatory country of origin labelling has been in place for fresh seafood since 2006. It is now time to extend it to the food service and restaurant sector.

The Northern Territory Seafood Council and its chairman, the most appropriately named Rob Fish, say that there has been a big shift in awareness since the government’s seafood labelling laws came into effect in 2008. In a survey undertaken a year after the law was introduced, 66 per cent of consumers said that the seafood being local was the most important choice factor, almost 90 per cent said they would always, or almost always, buy local over imported produce; 71 per cent said they were aware that Territory dining venues must label seafood as ‘imported’ if it is not Australian, and 47 per cent said the main reason they chose local seafood was to support the local industry. So mandatory labelling has worked well and has been accepted in the Northern Territory. The absence of effective labelling requirements in the rest of Australia compromises consumer choice and undermines the Australian fisheries industry.

The management of our Australian fisheries is well recognised as world leading. It is regulated and controlled so that it is sustainable and provides a safe product for consumption. Without country of origin labelling, no certainty of choice exists. If diners buy an unlabelled product which turns out to be poor quality, they may simply be put off buying seafood altogether, and we do not want that result. We want demand for local seafood to remain strong. Without labelling, the consumer lacks the ability to make informed decisions based on freshness, safety, real cost and support for a sustainable industry. It would seem timely to now accept the recommendation of the National Seafood Industry Alliance and extend mandatory country of origin labelling for seafood to the restaurant and food service, to the food on your plate as you sit down to eat, in this country. I urge state governments to begin that campaign, to step up to the plate and to follow the lead of the Northern Territory.