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Launch of the Regulatory impact statement, "Food safety standards - costs and benefits", 25 May 1999

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Grant Tambling


Senator the Hon Grant Tambling at the Launch of the

Regulatory Impact Statement 

" Food Safety Standards - Costs and Benefits "

25 May 1999

  • Good afternoon, and thank you Ian (Lindenmayer).
  • For the first time ever, Australians now ha ve a Report Card on how well we're dealing with a major public health problem -- food poisoning.
  • I'm here to release that Report Card, which comes in the form of a document called the "Food Safety Standards -- Costs and Benefits" report.
  • It has been prod uced by the nation's food safety watchdog, the Australia New Zealand Food Authority - or ANZFA, as most people know it.
  • Over the past 12 months ANZFA has been keeping tabs on how many Australians get sick from eating or drinking unsafe products, what's ca using the problem, and how much foodborne illness is costing us. This report is the result of that research, and it contains some good news - and some bad news.
  • This report does three things no report of its kind has done before:

1.  It identifies the scale of the problem we face with foodborne illness;

2. it identifies what's wrong with our current food hygiene system, and;

3. it offers us a smart set of nationally uniform solutions.

  • Before I go on, just a quick word about ANZFA for those who are not fam iliar with it. ANZFA is an independent, expert statutory body whose main job is to develop and review food standards in Australia and New Zealand.
  • ANZFA is a partnership between our Federal, State and Territory Governments, and the New Zealand Government. As Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Aged Care, ANZFA is one of my portfolio responsibilities.
  • In 1995, following the major Garibaldi food poisoning outbreak in South Australia, the State and Territory Health Ministers directed ANZFA to begin drafti ng the food standards now contained in this report. To their credit, four years later and after a lot of hard work, each of the State and Territory Governments are just as committed to seeing these new food standards up and running.
  • It is also pleasing to note the support and forward-looking commitment that has been given to the development of new food safety standards by a number of major industry associations, particularly retailers, manufacturers and wholesaling and transport as well as the primary prod uction sector. Although I note there are still some reservations from hotels, cafes and restaurants about implementation.
  • Earlier I mentioned some good news and bad. So, what's the good news? - that by international standards, we have a very safe food sup ply. However, the not-so-good-news, if you like, is we still have a significant national problem with food poisoning.
  • There is certainly no room for complacency. In fact, some of the food poisoning statistics in this report came as a bit of a shock to me, and they probably will to you too.
  • For example, did you know that every day in Australia 11,500 people come down with some kind of foodborne disease. That's 4.2 million cases of foodborne illness every year.
  • And I am told these are likely to be conserva tive estimates, because health authorities all around the world have found that food poisoning is consistently under-reported.
  • The Australian food industry plays a major role in providing the 20 billion meals we eat every year. But to put this into perspe ctive, it's estimated that less than .02 per cent of all these meals actually cause food poisoning.
  • But in the 1 in 5000 cases when it does happen, the cost is high -- both for our own health and safety, and in economic terms.
  • The "Food Safety Standards - Costs and Benefits" report estimates that foodborne disease costs Australians more than $2.6 billion -- that's right, billion dollars - every year. In 1996-97, absenteeism due to food poisoning resulted in productivity losses of over $370 million.
  • And t hat's without even trying to put a dollar value on the pain and discomfort of food poisoning.
  • Outbreaks of foodborne disease can do more than put people out of action for a few days. Food poisoning can and does kill. It is especially dangerous for four gr oups of people;
  • young children;
  • the elderly;
  • those whose immune systems have been repressed by illness (such as HIV sufferers), and;
  • pregnant women.
  • Also, there is emerging medical evidence that food poisoning can lead to chronic illnesses, including reactive arthritis .
  • I started by giving you a snapshot of the problem. The next question is, what's wrong with our current approach to food safety?
  • First, we've got far too many different food hygiene laws and regulations. Every state and territory has its own separate se t of food safety legislation. Around Australia, there are 24 different food hygiene laws and regulations. On top of that, there are over 700 local councils with different by-laws to regulate food businesses. This adds up to an incredible mish-mash of red t ape.
  • The system we have now costs governments $18.6 million (net) to enforce, and it costs small business $337 million every year to comply.
  • Second, many of the regulations are out of date -- in some cases, we're still using food safety standards which w ere written 70 years ago, in the days of the horse and cart!
  • For example, one regulation tells food business owners to "provide a properly constructed and closely covered manure receptacle into which the proprietor shall cause to be placed daily all anima l droppings and stable cleanings".
  • All of this is a real headache for business, particularly if a company is operating in more than one state or territory. For Australians, who expect their food to be safe -- all the time -- this just isn't good enough.
  • Another major problem with our current system is that it is prescriptive and not preventive. The current system concentrates on enforcement, on catching and prosecuting people for producing or selling unsafe food. This approach is far from fail safe - ther e is no way it can cover every eventuality in safe food handling.
  • Also, our current food hygiene system doesn't match up to the international standards being adopted by our major trading partners like the US, Europe, Canada and New Zealand. This will put our food exporters at an increasing disadvantage in world markets unless we reform our standards.
  • This all leads to the question - What is being proposed?
  • The ANZFA report looks at five different options for reforming our food safety standards, and it co sts each of these options out.
  • What is crystal clear if you read the report is that if we are serious about reducing Australia's rates of foodborne illness, ANZFA's proposed food safety standards offer us the best chance to do this.
  • A reduction in food p oisoning of just 20 per cent would save Australia over $500 million a year.
  • The proposed best option for reform takes a "paddock to plate" or "whole of food chain" approach to food safety. This is based on prevention rather than cure. It's based on intern ational "best practice".
  • Next year, we will have a lot of tourists descending on our shores for the Olympics. SOCOG has already told all caterers they will have to follow food safety plans because they are recognised world-wide as the best way to prevent food poisoning.
  • For example, there is a good chance we could have avoided the most recent major food poisoning outbreak if this proposed "paddock to plate" national food safety system was in place earlier. Some people may recall the large-scale contaminat ion of orange juice produced in South Australia.
  • It happened last month. So far, more than 500 people have been confirmed as suffering from food poisoning after drinking the juice. Quite a few people ended up in hospital. This outbreak has cost hundreds o f thousands of dollars.
  • The bug in the juice was a virulent strain of Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infection is one of the most common forms of food poisoning in Australia, but it is only one of a number of pathogens popping up with greater regularity in our food.
  • There was also the settlement earlier this year of a food poisoning class action against a Brisbane hotel after 90 students and teachers suffered food poisoning - highlighting the possible economic consequences for small business of a breakdo wn in food safety.
  • We are also aware of the 1996 catering incidents affecting 84 people in Townsville, and the cricket team and 80 others in Victoria taken sick at a Victorian country hotel, and the 500 Qantas passengers who suffered after eating in-flight food prepared by c aterers.
  • We are also finding new strains of bacteria in food we previously thought was safe. Most people think you can't get food poisoning from drinking fruit juice.
  • It may surprise you to hear that fresh fruit and vegetables like lettuce, radishes and rockmelon can also be contaminated by bacteria which can cause food poisoning if they aren't hygienically produced and handled.
  • These days, our food comes from all over the country, and indeed, all over the world. This increases the risk of foodborne illn ess. Our eating habits have changed, as well. To save time, more people are buying pre-prepared meals.
  • This means that consumers are handing over responsibility to others for preparing their food -- so they become more vulnerable to food poisoning if the food hasn't been hygienically prepared.
  • Unless Australia introduces a clear, practical and national set of food safety standards which apply to everyone who produces, processes, handles and sells food, we will remain at risk.
  • Now, a brief word about how much the proposal is likely to cost businesses. The ANZFA report estimates that the initial cost for each small business could be about $300, with an annual on-going cost of $1080 after that. These costs will replace the amounts businesses already pay to c onform with current food hygiene laws. According to this report, estimates show that small businesses should actually pay hundreds of dollars less if we adopt the new standards.
  • It is true that these reforms will cost Governments a little more. ANZFA esti mates that the annual cost could rise by around $22.9 million. But this should be seen as commonsense investment in better food safety for the future. Improved standards will generate huge returns in so many ways - including lower health care costs, less a bsenteeism, and improved business productivity.
  • In conclusion and to sum up, the recommended food safety reforms feature a "paddock to plate" approach. They emphasise prevention. They use systematic methods to minimise food contamination, which are tailor ed for each section of industry involved in the food handling chain.
  • These standards are designed to achieve a better overall public health outcome in a commonsense way. They allow business the flexibility to develop and apply new approaches to food safet y, as long as overall standards are met.
  • For the first time, they give Australia the opportunity to have nationally consistent food safety legislation, simplifying procedures for businesses which operate across more than one state or territory.
  • These ref orms will enhance Australia's overseas reputation as a supplier of safe, quality food.
  • And perhaps most importantly, the costs and benefits of the proposed new system are now on the table for all to see and appreciate.
  • Finally, I should pay tribute to al l 8 State and Territory Health Ministers for their initiative in launching this major project and working to ensure it is implemented.
  • For all these reasons, I commend this report to you.



jy  1999-08-18  15:27