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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 7046

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (15:37): I present the explanatory memoranda and I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—


Whenever the question is asked, overwhelmingly Australians tell us that they want to be able to easily identify and buy Australian-grown food. Yet the truth is that current food labelling thwarts this simple request.

A walk in any supermarket soon reveals the difficulty. Pick up a packet of bacon for example, and it may well tell you that it's "Made in Australia". Any reasonable customer would interpret that to mean that meat is Australian. A packet of glace cherries tells you they are "Australian owned and made". Similarly, a packet of rice crackers has a cheerful rice-cracker shaped map of Australia on its front plus the words 'Made in Australia'. Flip it over and it asks you to see a website for more details.

Surely the rice in the crackers is Australian grown? But visit the website you've been referred to by the packet and there's not one mention of where the rice comes from. The cherries aren't Australian grown but were glaced here; and as for the bacon, the meat was actually imported from another country but sliced, cured and prepared in Australia.

In all three instances, because the food in the packet was 'substantially transformed' as defined in legislation, and 50% or more of those transformation costs were incurred in Australia, the food can be legally labelled 'Made in Australia' or 'Australian Made'.

Little wonder then, that people are confused and frustrated by our current labelling laws. What Australians want to know is "was this food or the ingredients in it grown here?" Current labelling leaves them none the wiser.

When consumer advocacy organisation CHOICE surveyed their members, they found that only half of them actually understood what the current terms 'Australian Made' and 'Made in Australia' mean, and 90% said that country of origin labelling needs to be clearer.

Under current labelling laws packaged food is treated like any other good or service, so these terms — 'Australian' Made', 'Made in Australia' and the much higher standard for 'Product of Australia' — can be found on virtually any other item you might purchase. But this is the heart of the problem: food is not the same as just any other good or service, and should not be lumped in with it for labelling purposes.

As the 2011 Blewett Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy states:

Food is ingested and taken into ourselves, unlike most other consumer goods that are just used, [so] naturally consumers are primarily focussed on the components and ingredients of foods and not with their substantial transformation, packaging or value adding.

Food is not like any other good. By conflating the processing of food with the origin of ingredients, we are stopping Australians from making an informed choice. The language is unnecessarily confusing. We can have clear labelling that lets Australians know if they are buying Australian-grown food, and if that product has been processed in Australia.

Some will no doubt point to the fact that while over 80% of Australians consistently tell us they want to be able to easily identify and buy Australian food, when it comes to actual purchases, this number drops to between 50 and 60% percent of people actually choosing to buy local over other, possibly cheaper options. In short, the argument goes that price ultimately trumps country of origin for Australians when it comes to food, and therefore it's not worth the bother to sort out this labelling confusion.

But there are a number of counters to this argument. Over half of Australians are very clear that they do make food purchasing decisions based on whether the food is local. There is emphatic evidence that the current labelling regime is confusing and misleading Australians. Isn't this sufficient reason alone for reform?

The Blewett Review's findings regarding the values associated with food labelling are particularly important. They tell us that the origin of food is being used by Australians as a surrogate for other issues they care very much about including food miles, animal welfare and other environmental and health concerns. In essence, Australians are looking to identify local produce as a way of ensuring the quality of food they seek, and rewarding the high standards our growers and producers meet.

But perhaps most important is to ask why we would persist with a food labelling regime that is arguably giving imported foods a competitive advantage over comparable Australian products. We know Australians clearly want to be able to identify and prefer Australian food. Therefore surely persisting with a labelling regime where imported ingredients can be labelled as 'Made in Australia', suggesting to most people that it is grown here, is allowing imported food to masquerade as something it is not, and compete unfairly.

This argument was also taken up by the Blewett Review, which stated:

There are mutual market benefits (to buyer and seller) of promoting food with positive/aspirational origins (e.g., chocolate from Switzerland), yet non-reciprocal benefits from withholding such information when it relates to origins with perceived negative connotations (e.g., food products from countries with poor human rights records). This situation constitutes market failure and the reason for government intervention on the issue of country of origin labelling.

If, as some contend, Australians predominantly choose what food to buy based on price there is even less reason to allow imported food to be passed off as Australian. Let Australian and imported food compete on equal footing, supported by accurate and transparent labelling requirements. For that to happen, current labelling requirements must change.

Clearly the arguments against reform don't stack up. It is little wonder then that the Blewett Review concluded that there is a strong case for reforming our country of origin labelling laws for food.

What is inexplicable is why this government, the same that commissioned the Blewett Review, has failed to implement these key recommendations to reform country of origin labelling for food. The review unambiguously confirmed that the widespread and ongoing dissatisfaction and confusion across Australia regarding country of origin labelling is justified. It confirmed that markets cannot deliver it and the government must.

In the absence of the government taking up this reform, the Greens have acted. With solid evidence to support the reform, and impatience from Australian growers and the community for change, we are proud to table this bill.

There are two key parts to the amendments put forward in this bill. The first enacts Recommendation 41 of the Blewett Review, by creating a specific section in the Competition and Consumer Act that will deal solely with country or origin claims with regard to food.

The purpose of this is two-fold: to cease the treatment of food as just any other good; and to create a single regulatory regime, retaining mandatory labelling requirements but superseding country of origin labelling from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act.

The Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act is focussed on dealing with matters relating primarily to food health and safety. As country of origin labelling is centrally concerned with accurate information for consumers and preventing misleading claims, regulation of the matter rests more logically in the Competition and Consumer Act.

The second part of this bill enacts Recommendation 42 of the Blewett Review, that country of origin labelling for food should be based on the ingoing weight of the ingredients and components, excluding water. This codifies the desire of Australians to know the origin of the food they are buying first and foremost, not where any processing and packaging took place.

The bill removes the ability to make the stand-alone claim 'Made in Australia' about food, and provides unambiguous language and benchmarks. Food grown in Australia, as it can now, will be able to state exactly that on labelling. Processed food comprising 90% or more Australian ingredients by dry weight will be labelled "Made of Australian ingredients". This will establish an easy to understand transparent premium claim that will allow Australians to finally make informed purchasing decisions.

There is often discussion in this country about how to bring the city and the bush closer together. It's a logical and necessary conversation, one that recognises that with the majority of Australians living in cities but heavily reliant on the work of rural Australians, especially for food, it important to foster understanding and respect. However, much of the commentary on the issue is couched in terms of a divide, and other negativity.

The desire of Australians to be able to make a clear choice and buy locally grown food shows that people living in our cities do understand and value the work of Australian farmers, and they want to demonstrate that tangibly.

The arguments for clear country of origin labelling to enable this are logical and long-standing, and should be honoured and enacted. This bill seeks to do just that.

I commend this bill to the Senate.

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.