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Monday, 2 March 2015
Page: 1772


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (13:03): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) revelations that certain brands of imported frozen berries grown and/or packaged in China are suspected of having infected Australians with Hepatitis A through contamination with faecal matter;

(b) that Food Standards Australia and New Zealand presently only require 5 per cent of frozen berries imported into Australia to be tested and even then, not for Hepatitis A;

(c) that local berry growers are subject to demanding chemical and biological testing and inspection procedures at the growers' expense;

(d) that consumers who want to know where their food comes from face confusing country of origin labelling, for instance, the words 'made in Australia' can mean that all of the ingredients are made or grown elsewhere but are packaged in Australia;

(e) that this is an important public health issue demanding a strong Government response in the areas of food standards and food labelling; and

(f) that consumers are entitled to have:

   (i) confidence that the food they buy for themselves and their children is safe; and

   (ii) detailed information as to its ingredients and origins; and

(2) calls on the Government to ensure comprehensive testing of food imports to Australia and appropriate labelling of food with regard to ingredients and origin.

I am pleased to bring this motion forward for debate. It relates to a serious health issue which raises important questions about food standard regulations, screening and labelling. In the last month there has been widespread concern in relation to contaminated berries imported from China that have so far been linked with 21 confirmed cases of hepatitis A. While, fortunately, events like this are rare, the gravity of this case—where thousands have been exposed to potential infection of a serious disease and where further cases of hepatitis are likely to develop—demands that we look closely at the shortcomings in our food safety framework.

At present, imported fruits are classified as surveillance foods—meaning that only five per cent are randomly tested by the Department of Agriculture in order to comply with the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Fruit is principally tested for pesticides and even microbial testing of supposed risk foods is limited to bacteria that are the most common cause of food borne illness. As a result, that testing does not extend to viruses like hepatitis A. This standard compares poorly with the rigour and the cost of screening and inspection that local berry growers face.

The contamination that has occurred has caused wide community discussion of Australia's framework of food safety precautions. The starting point when it comes to imported food is the recognition that not all countries can match Australia's general quality of agricultural practices and surveillance standards. But, in recognising that it is impossible for any food production or importation process to be absolutely risk free, there is clearly room for improvement. This could include the classification of an expanded range of high-risk foods, the testing of larger sample sizes and the enhancement of screening technologies. I also note that food safety experts have suggested that there should be independent auditing of growers and factories overseas in some circumstances.

The Department of Agriculture has requested a review of the risk status of frozen berries from Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which I hope will address some of these concerns. Unfortunately, the recent cuts of 280 jobs at FSANZ hardly inspires confidence in terms of the regulator's capacity to provide adequate supervision and guidance. This appears to be another case of a government intent on hacking away at key threads in a web of sensible protection simply because of its inclination to regard all regulation as dispensable red tape. Let us remember that, at the very dawn of this government, the office and chief of staff of the Assistant Minister for Health were involved in seeking to undermine the introduction of food labelling designed to allow Australians to better understand the nutritional value of the foods we eat. I am pleased that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Agriculture have realised, if only belatedly, the critical importance of effective food labelling and food regulation.

I would also suggest that in our rush to sign the suite of new trade agreements we have neglected to protect provisions that help ensure broad public safety. It is simply not good enough to allow companies to self-regulate when our health is at stake, and yet there are aspects of recently and blindly celebrated free trade agreements that give foreign companies the ability to contest aspects of Australia's regulatory environment and seek judgements from investor state dispute resolution tribunals that have been shown to be flawed and compromised in their decision making. How soon will it be before the health of Australian citizens is jeopardised by this loss of Australian sovereignty?

On a number of occasions I have spoken in this place about Australia's food-labelling laws, which remain inadequate and misleading. This area of regulation has failed to keep pace with a sophisticated consumer culture in which food choices are rightly made on the basis of environmental, political, animal welfare and wider health concerns. Informed decisions cannot be based on information that is cloaked in ambiguous language or built on partial truths. It is not asking too much to expect that 'made in Australia' should mean what an ordinary person would understand by that phrase. It is not too much to expect that companies which do the right thing, for instance when it comes to genuinely free-range farming, have the benefit of making that claim for their produce and are protected from competitors who seek to misrepresent their own poor animal welfare practices.

We are fortunate in Australia that food borne illness and infectious disease outbreaks are comparatively rare. That will not remain the case through complacency. It is a state of affairs that is put at risk when the government does not take the proper role of regulation seriously. It is a state of affairs jeopardised by the pursuit of low-yielding free trade agreements that put corporate and market interests ahead of public and environmental health.

The hepatitis A contamination of frozen berries is a reminder that our food standards, labelling and public health protection framework need to be stronger and more effective and not more poorly resourced and subject to the interference of foreign commercial interests. That is why I urge the government to improve and enhance Australia's regulatory capacity in this area and deliver the kind of honesty and clarity in labelling that the Australian community has for many years been calling for.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Landry ): Is the motion seconded?

Mr Zappia: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.