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Community Affairs Legislation Committee - 15/02/2012 - Estimates - HEALTH AND AGEING PORTFOLIO - Food Standards Australia New Zealand

Food Standards Australia New Zealand

[20.15]

CHAIR: Welcome. Senator Edwards has questions.

Senator EDWARDS: Good evening. I want to talk to you about orange juice and specifically Brazilian orange juice.

Ms Halton : Sorry, Senator, but there has been a running joke about Brazil. We actually thought it was going to be about pippin plants. We were not expecting Brazilian oranges.

Senator EDWARDS: That is all right. I started googling Brazilian and—

CHAIR: Do not tell that story.

Senator EDWARDS: it took me somewhere my parliamentary access did not want to go.

Ms Halton : This is why the team is laughing. We had several jokes about Brazilians which probably would not be professionally appropriate for me to disclose to you, Senator. But oranges we were not expecting.

Senator EDWARDS: Which is why I prefaced everything I said with orange juice and specifically Brazilian. I am glad I have created a little levity. But it is a very serious issue. Thirty-two thousand tonnes of oranges are imported into this country every year. Obviously we have an orange industry in this country as well. What is the current state of imports of orange juice from Brazil?

Mr McCutcheon : We have been in consultation with the Australian Beverages Council, which represents the juice industry in this country. They have advised us that the industry here produces about 540 million litres of orange juice a year, of which 380 million litres are sold as ambient product and 160 million litres are sold as chilled product. Import patterns can vary seasonally from year to year. Essentially what the industry has to do is to import, ostensibly, frozen concentrated orange juice, or FCOJ, into the country to supplement the production of fruit juice. In 2010, the industry has advised us, to meet the demand of orange juice products, they imported 32,000 tonnes of frozen concentrated orange juice. That can vary seasonally. Just to give you an indication, again based on industry data, off the top of my head, the Australian domestic growing industry apparently provides about 45 per cent of the needs of the orange juice industry. In other words, it is the equivalent in frozen concentrated orange juice of about 55 per cent that is required to be imported.

Senator EDWARDS: Why do we tolerate imports from countries which use carbendazim?

Mr McCutcheon : All imported product into this country is required to meet the standards that sit in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Currently, in the Food Standards Code there is an MRL for carbendazim in orange juice. Whilst that is in the code, imports can come into this country providing they meet that level. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority has been reviewing carbendazim for domestic use in this country for some time and in November last year made a decision to suspend or certainly remove the registrations or the approvals for that particular chemical. As part of that process, they would amend their MRL, or maximum residue limit, to zero. Under new arrangements that have been in effect from 1 March 2011, they have the power need to amend the Food Standards Code to bring in an amendment to that. The APVMA proposed to bring the level in the Food Standards Code to zero. The fruit juice manufacturing industry raised some concerns about the potential for that to impede trade. So we are currently in discussions with APVMA about how we might deal with that issue.

Senator EDWARDS: So the World Health Organisation standard is 10 parts per billion MRL. We ban the use of it, yet we let up to 10 parts per billion into this country. Therefore, I just cannot understand the inconsistency in banning a chemical and prejudicing growers in this country while the World Health Organisation has an acceptable limit and the US has a zero limit, which is effectively a tariff. It is a health issue. We are effectively shutting out the use of a chemical. I am yet to hear a compelling argument as to why we are not using it at the same levels as countries that use it from which we allow imports.

Mr McCutcheon : I think the issue around the use of the chemical in this country is one that should be directed to the APVMA, not FSANZ. Our role is to administer the Food Standards Code. Our specific interest is making sure that MRLs in that code protect public health and safety.

Senator EDWARDS: I might come back to you after Senator Xenophon. I am conscious of the time.

Senator XENOPHON: I am grateful to Senator Edwards for raising this issue. Mr McCutcheon, I wrote to you on 17 January in relation to the issue of carbendazim. You recollect that? There was a response from the parliamentary secretary, the Hon. Catherine King. You would have a copy of that letter?

Mr McCutcheon : Correct.

Senator XENOPHON: I want to get some clarification further to your answers to Senator Edwards. In the fourth paragraph of that letter, Ms King said:

However, orange juice imported into Australia will not be permitted to contain any carbendazim after the existing permissions are revoked in the first quarter of 2012.

That is quite unequivocal. Is that still the case?

Mr McCutcheon : Not necessarily, Senator. We are in the process of—

Senator XENOPHON: What do you mean by ‘not necessarily’?

Mr McCutcheon : Let me finish my answer, Senator. At the time that letter was written, the APVMA had proposed to reduce the MRL in the Food Standards Code to zero. That is why that statement would appear in that letter. But in subsequent representations from the industry and in discussions with APVMA, we asked them to pause or not implement that zero amendment to the code so that we could have a look at the public health and safety issues around this particular MRL and provide them with some further advice. I guess our response to that was driven by representations we had from the juice industry that were concerned that, if there was a zero MRL in the Food Standards Code, there were potentially serious impediments to them.

Senator XENOPHON: At least they share. By the juice industry, do you mean the food processors?

Mr McCutcheon : The industry that produces fruit juices—yes.

Senator XENOPHON: The producers. Mostly the multinationals who do our own fruit growers in the eye. In relation to that, Catherine King, the Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, wrote to me. It is undated but, presumably, it was a week or two later. You are saying that is no longer accurate?

Mr McCutcheon : Things have moved on since that letter was written.

Ms Halton : It was correct at the time, Senator.

Senator XENOPHON: I suppose everything could be correct at the time it is written.

Ms Halton : We are saying that the position has changed.

Senator XENOPHON: And the position has changed as a direct result of lobbying by food processors.

Mr McCutcheon : The juice manufacturing industry were concerned that they would not be able to supply the Australian market with fruit juice for the demand. Essentially, more than half the product—the key ingredient they have for juice—is imported because we cannot produce enough here.

Senator EDWARDS: That is nonsense.

Senator XENOPHON: I am told of the prices that fruit growers in the Riverland get for their oranges, and some of them do not even bother picking them. Did you test those assertions?

Mr McCutcheon : We are not in the business of discussing prices that growers get for their oranges. Our primary concern is to make sure that the maximum residue limits that sit in the code protect public health and safety. But under our legislation we have a number of other considerations we have to take into account, including other relevant international standards. In this case, that is the Codex standard and industry competitiveness.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr McCutcheon, you just contradicted yourself. You say that it is about health and safety. You do not take into account prices. But the fact is you were lobbied by the fruit juice industry because they want to keep getting cheap concentrate in with carbendazim and the standard is going to be slackened off. That is the case, is it not?

Mr McCutcheon : I am not going to agree or disagree with you. I am just stating the facts. The fact is that our No. 1 consideration is making sure we have an MRL in the code that protects public health and safety. Under the legislation we have a number of other considerations we have to look at.

Senator XENOPHON: Which is your No. 1 consideration? Is it health and safety and the profitability of some of these food processors?

Mr McCutcheon : The act makes it quite clear: protecting public health and safety.

Senator HEFFERNAN: So does the APVMA look after you and you look after the regulation of what they decide?

Mr McCutcheon : The APVMA are responsible for the use of chemicals throughout Australia.

Senator HEFFERNAN: So they decided it is zero for commercial purposes?

Mr McCutcheon : There are two elements to MRL setting. This is getting into quite a technical discussion.

Senator HEFFERNAN: That is all right.

Mr McCutcheon : Essentially, the MRL that the APVMA sets for itself is basically the MRL it sets for good agriculture practice. The MRL that we set in the food standards code is to protect public health and safety.

Senator HEFFERNAN: So one is—

CHAIR: Hang on. There cannot be two questions at a time.

Senator HEFFERNAN: So if there is a differentiation between using it safely and eating it safely, where do you drawn the line?

Mr McCutcheon : There can be a differentiation, although it is not the norm. Most of the MRLs that are in the Food Standards Code are the same as the MRLs that apply for good agriculture practice. But there are some MRLs in the code and, similarly, there are some international MRLs that are set that are different, because in terms of setting the public health and safety aspect, there are a number of considerations.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Which is the higher consideration? Is it safer to have more of it to eat it or safer to have more of it to use it?

Mr McCutcheon : There are two separate objectives here, Senator.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Yes. Which is the higher?

Mr McCutcheon : There is the objective of farmers who use the chemical, making sure that they use it up to the point where it is good agriculture practice. If they go above the MRL the APVMA sets, that is not good agriculture practice. The MRL that is in the Food Standards Code is on the basis of public health and safety.

Senator XENOPHON: But it is banned. It is banned by the citrus industry. It has been banned for two years. Carbendazim has been banned. I spoke to the CEO of Citrus Australia today, Judith Damiani, and she told me that it is banned.

Senator HEFFERNAN: It is banned.

Senator XENOPHON: It is banned in the citrus industry for growers here in Australia. Is that the case?

Mr McCutcheon : That is correct. But, as I said at the beginning, the APVMA have been conducting this review. I am not going to speak on behalf of the APVMA. I am just saying that in November last year they made a public announcement that they were going to reduce the MRL in the Food Standards Code to zero as a result of their review.

Senator XENOPHON: Let me get this straight. Carbendazim has been banned for use by Australian citrus farmers for the last two years, but we can still bring in fruit juice concentrate from overseas with carbendazim in it. Correct?

Mr McCutcheon : That is correct, yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Ten parts per billion.

Senator XENOPHON: You do not see any inconsistency there?

Mr McCutcheon : No. On the reverse side—I know this and Senator Heffernan knows this—there are chemicals we use in this country that are not used in some of our export markets, so we seek import tolerances in those markets.

Senator XENOPHON: Can you see from a consumer’s point of view, Mr McCutcheon, that, because we have such pathetically weak country of origin labelling laws, consumers will not be any better off? If they wanted to choose Australian orange juice, which is carbendazim free, they have no idea because 'Made in Australia' is a nonsense. The label does not mean anything.

Mr McCutcheon : I am not going to get into the debate about 'Made in Australia'. That is the ACCC’s territory.

Senator XENOPHON: Consumers would know. They could be consuming 'Made in Australia' labelled orange juice and it could be 70 or 80 per cent Brazilian concentrate. Correct?

Senator EDWARDS: For all the reasons that you have banned for health—

Senator XENOPHON: That is correct, is it not, Mr McCutcheon? I want to get an answer from Mr McCutcheon. That is the case, as labelling laws currently exist?

Mr McCutcheon : Providing they meet the requirements for the 'Made in Australia' claim, correct. It can vary.

Senator XENOPHON: Exactly.

CHAIR: Are there any further questions to FSANZ?

Senator HEFFERNAN: We will just ask a dumb question. What is the testing regime—one in 1,000 litres or one in 10 packets?

Mr McCutcheon : That is a question for what is now called the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry biosecurity arm.

Senator HEFFERNAN: But, if you supervise the implementation of the policy, how can you supervise it if you do not know what the testing regime is?

Mr McCutcheon : We are not responsible for the testing.

Senator HEFFERNAN: It is nice to see you again, Mr McCutcheon.

Mr McCutcheon : We provide the scientific risk assessment advice to DAFF biosecurity. Whatever testing regime they want to impose, that is their business.

Senator HEFFERNAN: But if they tested one in a million instead of one in a thousand, would you be satisfied?

Mr McCutcheon : Well, our expertise is not in testing regimes. So, as I said, on the basis of the advice that we provide DAFF biosecurity, they make their decisions in respect of what testing regime they would apply.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Senator Xenophon, you have to get them all in the one room because they flick past each other.

CHAIR: Senator Xenophon, this is your last question.

Senator XENOPHON: The Hon. Catherine King wrote to me undated—she was pretty prompt—within about a week or so after writing that letter to you. Was there any proposal to tell me or anyone else that the carbendazim restriction was not going to be adhered to—that the ban on carbendazim or what she said about it would not be permitted to contain any carbendazim after the existing permissions were revoked in the first quarter of 2012? Was that advice publicly to people or not?

Mr McCutcheon : We did put a facts sheet on our website soon after this issue arose. Then we updated that facts sheet. It would have been around about the same time.

Senator XENOPHON: So in future I should check the website rather than rely on a letter from the parliamentary secretary?

Mr McCutcheon : Well, the most up-to-date information will be on the website.

Senator XENOPHON: I will have to ask the parliamentary secretary, not you, Senator McLucas. Perhaps Ms King could advise whether she thinks it is reasonable to tell me if there has been a change in circumstance with advice she has given me that I passed on to my constituents.

CHAIR: Senator Edwards, your last question.

Senator EDWARDS: Very quickly, given that this is coming at you from all sides in this room, will you now go back as a matter of policy or strategy and talk with APVMA in relation to this issue and say, ‘Can you get your house in order, because I think this is not going to go away'?

Mr McCutcheon : We have been in almost daily contact with them about this issue. As I said, we are seeking to find a resolution to this matter that will basically suit as many people as possible.

Senator EDWARDS: So you have got the wood on them?

Mr McCutcheon : No. We have a good working relationship with the APVMA. As I said, they are actually fulfilling this function for us now under the new arrangements that came into place in March last year. Part of that is making sure they get appropriate advice from us.

Senator EDWARDS: I am sure all the orange growers in Australia will look forward to a level playing field. Thank you.

CHAIR: The plan currently is that population health will go on to just after nine o’clock. I am just drawing people’s attention to that as we move to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. I thank the officers. We will now have the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.