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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
09/07/2008
Meat marketing

CHAIR —Welcome. I remind senators that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Officers are also reminded that any claim that it would be contrary to the public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis for the claim. Before we go to questions, do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Gorrie —Yes, I would like to make a brief statement, if you would not mind.

CHAIR —Please do.

Mr Gorrie —In fact, I was listening to some of those questions earlier, and I am not sure that I am that well-equipped to answer some of those detailed questions, but we will see how we go. Safe Food Production Queensland is a Queensland government statutory body established in 2002—so it is not very old—under the Food Production (Safety) Act 2000, to regulate the production of the primary production sector to ensure that primary produce is safe for consumption. The key words there are ‘safe for consumption’. This occurs through the development and implementation of risk based, outcomes focused food safety schemes developed in partnership with industry bodies. Currently, schemes have been implemented for meat, dairy and eggs and there are some under development right at the moment, one in seafood and one in plant products.

Our focus is very much on ensuring that the food is safe. Our experience has shown that questions of misrepresentation of lamb have really not been an issue that has been directly brought forward to Safe Food Production Queensland. Over the last three years we have had two complaints in this area. We have investigated both of them. With one we found that it was not substantiated and the other one we passed on to the Queensland Department of Health and, as far as I am aware, no action was taken there.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Was that Rockhampton?

Mr Gorrie —I am afraid I am not sure of the actual details, but I could find those out if you wish.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You might.

Mr Gorrie —Yes. So compared to the other states and territories, the sheep and lamb industry in Queensland is small. Our records indicate that we have 41 accredited abattoirs that slaughter sheep and that is solely for the domestic market. From the available data in 2007 these 41 abattoirs slaughtered about 414,000 sheep. This constitutes about 1.2 per cent of the nation’s sheep that were slaughtered last year. Of the 41 abattoirs, there was one whose estimated slaughtering was about two-thirds of the total kill of sheep in Queensland.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Who was that?

Mr Gorrie —Again, I do not have the details here, but I can provide them to you. This abattoir, together with three others, is accredited with AUS-MEAT. In total, the four AUS-MEAT accredited abattoirs are believed to account for about three-quarters of the sheep kill in Queensland. A significant number of the abattoirs report that they slaughter for their own retail outlets. For instance, butcher shops may also have a slaughter facility, which would be a very small facility. In the last three years, as I mentioned earlier, we have only received two complaints.

False meat branding is not considered a food safety matter. Safe Food Production Queensland considers that this is primarily a consumer affairs and fair trading matter. Safe Food Production Queensland operates under the Food Production (Safety) Act 2000 and its associated regulation. As the legislation’s key objective is the production of safe food and it has been drafted with a focus on outcomes, definitions such as lamb and quality aspects are not included in our legislation, although an accreditation holder may include such definitions in their own food safety program. The legislation does not include any requirements relating to misleading conduct or misrepresentation. There are no provisions in our act that relate to ‘misleading’ or ‘misrepresenting’. We do have a follow-on from some of the earlier meat substitution issues, section 81, which is a species-specific meat substitution clause. To my knowledge there has been no need for Safe Food Production Queensland to act upon this provision since the commencement of our legislation.

One of the key principles underlying the meat food safety scheme is traceability and identification of product. This is essential to enabling the efficient withdrawal of potentially unsafe or unsuitable food from the market and to assist in food-borne illness investigations. Matters of misrepresentation as to how meat is described does not, in the opinion of Safe Food Production Queensland, directly impact on the safety of the meat, whether it be mutton lamb or beef. We operate under the national framework for food regulation. What that means is that we take our lead from the ministerial council on food regulation. They provide the policy guidance and policy framework within which we operate. We would then follow the lead of Food Standards Australia New Zealand in the production of a food standard. We would participate in their standards development committees in the various areas for primary production and we would then encompass their standard into our food safety schemes. That is how we try and work. So we would try and make all of our regulations and approaches consistent with that national standard. In that way we feel that we have an arrangement which does ensure that we have consistency across the whole of Australia—not uniformity, I must say, but consistency. That is all I wanted to say in relation to an opening statement. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR (Senator O’Brien) —Thank you, Mr Gorrie. Welcome back to these rooms.

Mr Gorrie —Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR —If I understand what you are saying, there is actually no requirement to check dentition at abattoir level in the slaughter process of animals subsequently described as lamb in marketing.

Mr Gorrie —No. That is correct.

ACTING CHAIR —Are you aware of the volume of production of lamb in Queensland? Can you give us any material in relation to that?

Mr Gorrie —As I indicated, the annual slaughter numbers are about the 400,000 mark.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You do not make them up into lamb, mutton and hogget—you do not care?

Mr Gorrie —Again, I could ask if they could do that. Those records should be available at the various abattoirs and slaughterhouses. Whether we have them in Safe Food Production Queensland, I am frankly not sure but I can certainly find out.

ACTING CHAIR —The identification process for lamb—is there an acceptable brand or is it just a matter of what is on the box when someone buys it for marketing?

Mr Gorrie —As I pointed out, we do not really get into that aspect in a direct sense at all. So, if it comes out of an AUS-MEAT arrangement, we accept whatever is presented to us from that point of view.

ACTING CHAIR —So there is no legislation which deals with perhaps the concept of misleading and deceptive conduct in marketing a product to consumers?

Mr Gorrie —Not in the Food Production (Safety) Act, but there are provisions about misleading information on labels and so on in the Food Act, which is administered by the health portfolio in Queensland.

ACTING CHAIR —But, if they were to question something, there is no system which would establish a chain of proof about what the animal was prior to separation of its head from its carcass?

Mr Gorrie —We concentrate on trying to trace that animal right from the source of the farm, so that aspect we do.

Senator HEFFERNAN —How do you do that?

Mr Gorrie —A range of different arrangements.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Tell me what is it though? What is the arrangement? How do they trace them?

Mr Gorrie —Essentially, we rely on the NLIS system.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Have you implemented full lamb, sheep and mutton tagging in Queensland?

Mr Gorrie —Each abattoir is meant to keep records.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No. In Queensland, you are the chairman of Safe Meat. I have no idea what your background is. Do you have a system where, when I mark a lamb at Charleville, I put a tag in its ear so that when it turns up at the Rockhampton abattoir you know where it came from, other than some sort of paper declaration?

Mr Gorrie —It would be a paper declaration.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is absolute bullshit.

Mr Gorrie —That is what we have. As I mentioned when you were out of the room, Safe Food Production Queensland is really not—

Senator HEFFERNAN —But you said you are focused on traceability.

Mr Gorrie —Traceability, yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —If you do not have individual animal traceability, you do not have traceability.

Mr Gorrie —We use the NLIS framework for that traceability.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But the NLIS framework now says that every animal has to be tagged.

Mr Gorrie —That is right.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Do you have them tagged or not?

Mr Gorrie —The animals that—

Senator HEFFERNAN —If the answer is that you do not know, just say you do not know. If you do not know, you do not know. You might be an administrator and not on the ground.

Mr Gorrie —I am the chair of the company. The board does not really get into the operational detail. I can certainly take on notice any questions and come back to you with the detail.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, because it is sort of farcical, if it is not—

Senator FISHER —I understand your description of the authority’s obligations under the legislation and therefore, in your opinion, lamb description does not impact on safety issues—and I do not want to ask questions that dispute that at this stage. But to what extent do you think therefore you are equipped to give an opinion as to the appropriateness, the need or otherwise of increased vigilance in respect of lamb marketing in Queensland?

Mr Gorrie —I think the position of the authority would simply be that it is not a safety issue per se, and we would not have an opinion one way or the other as to whether there was a need for more vigilance or otherwise.

Senator FISHER —Okay, that is you on behalf of the authority. What about you as a person from the industry? What about Mr Gorrie personally? Do you have observations that you would care to share?

Mr Gorrie —I do not have any other opinions other than the authority’s opinion in my role as chair of that authority.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What is your background; what were you before you—

Senator O’BRIEN —He was a public servant for many years.

Mr Gorrie —I am a retired public servant.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But you are not out of the industry.

Mr Gorrie —I am not out of the industry, no.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is fair enough. I hope you fish off the coast up there. That is a good idea.

Mr Gorrie —I used to be in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Senator O’BRIEN —Indeed, as I welcomed, Mr Gorrie sat at estimates for over a number of years if not in other inquiries before this committee.

Senator HEFFERNAN —If you go to the supermarket, does it matter to you whether you are getting lamb or six-year-old wether from Charleville that looks like lamb?

Mr Gorrie —From Safe Food Production Queensland’s point of view, the answer to that is basically no.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So, from the government’s perspective in Queensland, it does not matter.

Mr Gorrie —No, I am talking—

Senator HEFFERNAN —But If you do not have a system in place to—

Mr Gorrie —I am talking about the legislation that our authority has to administer.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is precisely what I am talking about. Under the legislation, the signal that that sends to the consumer is: we are not here to define whether you are eating lamb or mutton.

Mr Gorrie —Essentially that is true from the point of view of our legislation. There are no provisions in our legislation that relate to misleading behaviour or conduct or to misrepresentation.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I think that is a very good answer.

Mr Gorrie —No provisions at all.

ACTING CHAIR —Mr Gorrie did say earlier that there was other relevant legislation that dealt with consumers being mislead, but I think we have also had evidence that said it would be very difficult to pursue that in any meaningful way.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is just bureaucratic hyperbole.

Mr Gorrie —If a complaint was made to Safe Food Production Queensland in relation to misbranding or misrepresentation, we would either take it directly to Queensland Health to further investigate, or we would take it to the office of fair trading within the ACCC.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Is there a mandatory requirement to brand lamb as ‘lamb’?

Mr Gorrie —Within our legislation, the answer is no.

Senator FISHER —Mr Gorrie, that is what you would do. To your knowledge, has the authority done that?

Mr Gorrie —We have had two complaints. One was at the retail end, which we do not look after, and we passed that immediately over to the department of health. I am not aware of what happened precisely, but I understand that no follow-up was taken.

Senator FISHER —What was the nature of the complaint in that case?

Mr Gorrie —It was simply misbranding mutton as lamb, as I understand it.

Senator FISHER —By a retailer?

Mr Gorrie —It was in the retail sector. I have no other details of that.

Senator FISHER —Small, medium or large?

Mr Gorrie —I could find out for you and see what information we have.

Senator FISHER —Thank you very much. That would be appreciated. What about the second instance?

Mr Gorrie —The second one was in one of the butcher shops that is accredited by Safe Food Production Queensland. We had a look at that particular complaint and we found that there was no substantiation.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What was the complaint?

Mr Gorrie —Same thing—branding.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You are not equipped to answer the question of whether it is lamb or whether it is five-year-old wether, are you? So how do you respond to a complaint that ‘This stuff that has come into my butcher shop from that abattoir wholesale is not lamb’? You are not equipped to answer that question in any event.

Mr Gorrie —Essentially, as I understand it, the auditor went and spoke with the complainant and, after discussions, there was no further action.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But who is the auditor?

Mr Gorrie —The auditor is a person employed by Safe Food Production Queensland.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But under your terms and legislative charter, you are not equipped to answer the question anyhow.

Mr Gorrie —The purpose of following it up from our point of view was to simply see whether there was a need to pass it on to somebody else.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But it is not in your jurisdictional interest. If it was maggoty, if it was off or if something was wrong with the meat, it would be right up your bailiwick.

Mr Gorrie —That is right.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But you are not there to define whether it is mutton, lamb or hogget.

Mr Gorrie —That is correct.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You just say, ‘Well, sorry, old mate, that’s not our job.’

Mr Gorrie —Yes.

Senator FISHER —However, I seek further clarification. You led into these two instances by saying that the authority would refer tem on, and I asked you about those two instances. You are now telling the committee about the second instance.

Mr Gorrie —Yes. The first one was in the retail sector, which we do not have, again, any—

Senator FISHER —Yes. In respect of the second one in the butcher’s outlet, you said earlier, I think, that there were no allegations to take further. Is this, in fact, an instance where you referred on, as you said you would do, and then gave these two examples? I want to understand why on the one hand you are saying that issues of misdescription you would refer on to those bodies in whose bailiwick it falls, yet the second instance you are citing as an example of that you are saying—if I understand correctly—’We stopped it dead because the authority’s auditor decided that there was no case to answer.’ Can you explain that?

Mr Gorrie —I do not have the detail, but my understanding is that in the second case there was just no evidence that could be used in any way to provide to either Queensland Health or the Office of Fair Trading.

Senator FISHER —So I guess you are saying there is nothing that the authority thought was even worth passing on, albeit in an informal way.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That was not a judgement on the merit of the complaint; that was a judgement on the fact that the system does not work to allow that definition to be made.

Senator FISHER —It would have been accredited to the charter under the legislation.

Mr Gorrie —We had no definition in our legislation.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Who do you pass it to that has the definition?

Mr Gorrie —As I said, we have two avenues to pass it on. If it is in the retail sector, we pass it on to the Department of Health—

Senator HEFFERNAN —But the Department of Health are not going to be interested in whether it is a lamb, a hogget or a rabbit, as long as it is good food.

Mr Gorrie —They do have provisions in their legislation relating to misrepresentation and misleading information, which we do not have.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But the system itself in the abattoir does not demand the definition between the various meats—hogget, mutton and lamb. It is not in the system, is it?

Mr Gorrie —We have none of those definitions in our legislation.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You are a bleedingly obvious case in Queensland if consumers who eat lamb up there are interested in uniformity of product to have a system suggested to the Queensland government that might do that.

Mr Gorrie —The abattoirs that are producing lamb in Queensland are all AUS-MEAT accredited, and frankly we are relying on the AUS-MEAT accreditation for those descriptions. It is not based in legislation at all.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I appreciate that. We have had AUS-MEAT tell us at this inquiry that they had complaints at a Victorian abattoir where they found a bucket full of hogget heads—bear in mind, they only inspect five in a 100, and it could be 50 this time and then 1,000 that you do not inspect. They just rang up and said, ‘By the way, old mate, in Melbourne we found a few hogget heads today,’ and put the phone down and that was the end of it. It is stupid.

Mr Gorrie —As I mentioned earlier, we do try and be consistent with a national approach. So if there was, if you like, a national initiative in this area—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Let us sharpen that up a bit. In the abattoirs in Queensland, what proportion of alleged lambs that are slaughtered have their mouth open before their head comes off?

Mr Gorrie —I cannot answer that question. I could try and find out for you. Frankly, I am not sure.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We would be interested in the answer. Would you be distressed as the Chairman of Safe Food Production Queensland if this committee suggested to you that it might be to the advantage of consumers in Queensland and to the producers of quality meat products if we suggested to the Queensland government that a system such as the one that we have just heard of in Western Australia be used in Queensland? Do you think there is anything wrong with what Western Australia does?

Mr Gorrie —I did hear some of the evidence.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Did it sound like a good idea to you?

Mr Gorrie —We would certainly have a look. I mentioned a moment ago that we are very much in favour of national consistency in food regulation and we have worked tirelessly at the CEO level and at the senior policy people level in Safe Food Queensland to contribute to the national policy development arrangements. So if something like that were suggested by the committee and went through that process within the standing committee level and then at the ministerial council level, we would certainly consider it. It would be a matter for the government.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The MLA has spent millions of dollars advertising the premium that lamb it represents. As I said before, I do not want Sam Kekovich up here punching my lights in because we damaged the lamb market. But surely, in view of all that advertising and all that PR, it would be a fundamentally good thing to have a system where you could actually audit what is happening.

Mr Gorrie —I do not disagree with that. But, as I said earlier, given that we have had two complaints brought forward to the authority within a three-year period—that is two complaints—it would seem to be me that the level of displeasure within the Queensland community is not terribly high.

Senator HEFFERNAN —But of course that has got nothing to do with the merits of the case. If you go to Woolies or to Billy Bloggs, the butcher, on the Sunshine Coast and you buy a rack of lamb or a shoulder or a leg and you take it home and say, ‘Oh, that was a tough lamb,’ that is about the end of it for you as the consumer. You say, ‘Geez, that was tough’—and that happens—and it is probably because it was a bit of old mutton. You are not in a position as a consumer to complain back through the process, because there is no process there to complain back through. There is no auditing system; therefore you are not going to get any complaints.

Mr Gorrie —Safe Food Queensland does have a complaints arrangement where people can ring up about anything that they think relates to our—

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is more focused on ‘the meat was maggoty,’ as it were.

Mr Gorrie —Certainly we get complaints about unsafe meat for consumption and we act upon those.

ACTING CHAIR —I think we have asked all the questions that we had for you, Mr Gorrie.

Mr Gorrie —I will follow up those issue that I undertook to get information on.

ACTING CHAIR —Thank you for your attendance. That concludes today’s hearing, which I declare closed.

Committee adjourned at 11.57 am