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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 253

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (11:26): Labor supports this Competition and Consumer Amendment (Country of Origin) Bill 2016 because it provides certainty for industry that safe harbour provisions under Australian Consumer Law are aligned with new country of origin labelling requirements. This will help protect enterprises, particularly Australian food manufacturers, make claims under the new mandatory labelling requirements that came into effect on 1 July 2016. This issue called for a bipartisanship approach in taking steps to resolve a longstanding problem, and that is what has happened. That said, sometimes on the way to this resolution we in the opposition have been bemused by the antics of some members of the government, especially the Deputy Prime Minister.

The basic problem these reforms address was set out clearly in the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry, tabled in October 2014. The committee recommended that labelling standards should be changed to make it easier for consumers to identify the sources of food products and the places where they are processed—the perfectly reasonable proposition that people know where their food has come from. The wording on many labels, 'Made in Australia using local and imported ingredients', clearly did not do that.

As senators will remember, however, what actually spurred the government into action was a food contamination scare in February 2015, after the report had been received. The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services announced that two brands of frozen berries sold in supermarkets had been linked to multiple cases of hepatitis A. The company that produced both brands obtained its berries from Chile and China, and processed them in China's Shandong province. Pictures emerged of excrement-clogged factories in Shandong, and in the subsequent media frenzy and consumer panic the careful wording of the Victorian announcement was usually ignored.

What the Victorian department said was that ingesting frozen berries was the only common link between the hepatitis cases. It did not claim that ingesting contaminated berries had caused all the cases. This fine distinction vanished completely when the then Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, the agriculture minister, Mr Joyce, and the then industry minister, Mr Macfarlane, called a media conference. They announced that a working party of ministers would consider the House of Representatives' report on food labelling. Mr Joyce blithely ignored the fact that the report had been presented to the government before the contamination scare, without being acted upon. He said, 'It's great to be part of a government that's actually going to do something.' On Channel 9's Today program he spoke more directly to the fears that the contaminated berries scare had aroused in consumers. He said, 'Buy Australian and save yourself a pain in the guts.'

Labor agrees that the best way of ensuring that packaged food is of acceptable quality is to buy Australian. I do it for a lot of other reasons as well—that is why I have been wearing this 'Made in Australia' badge for many, many years. We in the Labor Party have supported the adoption of the new system of food labels. It must be acknowledged that there are still other issues to be resolved, some of which have been raised in the original House of Representatives report. The gold kangaroo in a green triangle, above a filled-in or partly filled-in gold bar code, can tell consumers how much, if any, of the product has been grown and processed in Australia. This kind of labelling does not provide information about anywhere else the product might have come from. If the new system had applied at the time of the frozen berries scare, consumers would have been none the wiser about the origin of the berries that became a matter of contention. Nonetheless, the system is better than what it replaced, because when the Government was not diverted by trying to score points on this issue, as it did during the berries scare and again in the election campaign, it has actually done the right thing. It consulted stakeholders in the food industry and the state and territory governments. That is what we urged the governments to do when we offered support for the reform of food labelling in February last year.

The bill now before the Senate, like the new labelling requirements that came into force in July, is a result of those consultations. The new labelling requirements have been endorsed by state ministers for consumer affairs, the Food and Grocery Council, AUSVEG, the National Farmers' Federation and the consumer advocacy group Choice. These bodies have also supported the present bill, which alters the 'safe harbour' provisions of the Australian consumer law for businesses making country-of-origin claims. Safe harbour provisions are intended to give businesses certainty about the claims they can make without infringing consumer law. If a business makes a country-of-origin claim for its product, and that claim is alleged to be false or deceptive, the business has an automatic defence if it can show that the product meets the conditions laid down in the safe-harbour provisions.

Under the existing law, for a business to rely on this protection either the goods have to be substantially transformed in the place that is claimed as the country of origin or at least 50 per cent of the total costs of production must have occurred in that country. This bill strengthens the safe-harbour protections for food products by declaring the meaning of 'substantial transformation.' It removes the 50 per cent cost of production test, which is redundant now that food labels show the proportion of Australian ingredients. These are sensible changes that complement the new labelling system.

Labor continues to support this reform process, but we remind the government that the process of reform does not end with this bill. The government could go further and give full consideration to the bipartisan House of Representatives report that was originally tabled in 2014. We also urge the government to end its neglect of biosecurity and of Australia's manufacturing sector, of which food processing is such an important part, especially in regional areas.

Buying Australian will always be the best way for consumers to have confidence in the quality of food products. The maintenance of a vigorous manufacturing sector is the best way of ensuring that Australians will have high-skill, high-wage jobs and that the economy becomes less reliant on the vagaries of commodity exports.