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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 1039

Mrs MOYLAN (10:41 AM) —The Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment Bill 2010 had its origin in the 42nd Parliament. It has a stated purpose to implement a reform designed to streamline current regulatory processes which create circumstances whereby a primary producer may legally use a particular chemical product on their crops and livestock but may not legally be able to sell the treated produce in the domestic market. The Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee held an inquiry into the proposed legislation and found that it is expected to improve the efficiency with which the approval of chemical products can occur. I do welcome this bill. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am very particular about food standards in our country and, indeed, anything we export to other countries. I have spoken many times in this place on the importance of labelling, most recently on Monday, but we must make sure that we are not disadvantaging our producers by creating unnecessary red tape.

Submissions to the Senate committee inquiry noted that the delay between the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority applying to Food Standards Australia New Zealand to include a maximum residue limit in the food code averaged approximately 12 months. CropLife and the Animal Health Alliance informed the committee that their members had experienced waits of up to 18 months. During this time it would be legal for a farmer to use the particular chemical product but not to sell the treated produce. This delay causes significant problems for users of chemical products because a farmer may legally purchase a chemical that has been assessed as safe for use by the APVMA and use that product in accordance with the label directions but ultimately find that he or she is not able to sell their produce because the APVMA determined maximum residue limit is yet to be adopted within the Food Standards Code.

It is important to note that agvet chemicals are used by farmers when needed to protect crops and animals from a wide variety of pests, weeds and diseases. In Australia, agvet chemical products are strictly regulated by state and federal government agencies to protect human health, safety, trade and, of course, the environment—all very important things for us to be doing. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority conduct a rigorous scientific risk assessment on each new agvet chemical product before it can be approved for use in Australia. The assessment process determines whether the agvet chemical product is effective and safe with respect to people, animals and the environment and does not pose a trade risk. As part of this process, the APVMA also approves agvet chemical product labels which contain instructions on how to use the product correctly and safely.

I speak to the many great food producers in the electorate of Pearce. They are broadacre wheat and sheep farmers, market gardeners, large export fruit growers and everything in between. They grow olives, table grapes and wine grapes. A large number of products are grown and produced in the electorate of Pearce. I know my growers are very mindful of the need to protect human health and protect the environment. It is in their interests that they continue to safeguard both human health and the environment.

The member for Kingston, who is in the House today, moved a motion on food labelling on Monday. When speaking to that motion and on many occasions previously I strongly advocated measures to make it easier for Australian food producers to sell their goods. It is now more than ever essential that we as legislators work to make this possible as our food producers have never done it tougher. To add to the usual mix of difficulty for food producers in Australia we now of course have the rising value of the dollar, which for some people is a benefit but for others wishing to export their products in a tough and competitive international marketplace it is not.

A useful illustration of how difficult it is for our food producers is the 2009 cash flow estimates that a farmer in my electorate kindly made available to me. I have mentioned these figures before but they are worth mentioning again. Return rates for local farmers are quite slim. Sometimes they are as little as 3.5 per cent or below. I do not think we would see too many bankers in Australia being prepared to work long hours for such a low return and with all the vagaries of the weather with droughts and so on.

Based on a 5,000-hectare wheat belt cropping and wool property, my constituent calculated a notional $40.84 profit per hectare, but when farmers’ expenses, taxation, repayments and capital expenditure are taken into account, assuming repayments are kept to a minimum, the farmers expect to lose $36.06 per hectare. With such losses continuing over time, local farming is increasingly becoming unsustainable. A number of forces contribute to this worrying outcome. Many of them are not controllable by government, but this amendment bill is certainly one positive measure we can make on behalf of Australia’s primary producers, and every effort should be made to support them where it is safe to do so. Of course, I believe the emphasis in terms of food production should always be on the safety of that food for human consumption.

Consumers have consistently shown a willingness to vote with their wallets in support of local produce that is ethically grown, harvested and manufactured by environmentally conscious producers where such items are easily identified. The public enthusiasm is there. It is now up to government to show its political will and make good on this significant issue.

Safety was covered quite extensively in this Senate committee report. In his submission the Hon. Bob Such MP did not oppose the legislation but did call for the use of chemicals and pesticides to be kept to an absolute minimum and recommended increased provision of information about the use of chemicals on food products. The APVMA, Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Department of Health and Ageing were of the opinion that the bill would not result in an increased risk to human health and safety. The APVMA informed the committee that all current dietary exposure measures would remain the same. I think it is important to highlight that for those who may think that this in some way reduces the safety of the food that they consume.

The dietary assessment would be undertaken by APVMA and checked by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, as is currently the case, with FSANZ undertaking its own dietary assessment if needed. Food Standards Australia New Zealand made a similar point in its submission, stating that ‘the bill removes duplication of administrative processes but the scientific assessment required to ensure the safety to human health and the environment remains unchanged’. The code will retain its current structure whereby no chemical residue in food is legal unless there is a relevant prescribed MRL standard in the code. MRLs are specific to the chemical product and to the produce on which the product may be used. The ministerial council will still have the power to request a review of any food standard, including MRLs, and FSANZ will still be responsible for preparing or overseeing the dietary modelling used to determine the appropriateness of an MRL—that is, the maximum residue limits, for those who are not used to the acronyms.

The department of health further noted in their submission that ‘the food code would retain its current structure under which no chemical residues in food would be legal without a relevant approved MRL’. Food Standards Australia New Zealand retains the power to make urgent variations to the food code for the purpose of protecting public health and safety. The ministerial council is also able to request a review of any food standard, including an MRL standard. In more than 10 years of operation, Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the ministerial council have never disagreed with an MRL proposed by the APVMA on the basis of public health and safety.

In its conclusion the committee said it was satisfied that the proposed legislation will not increase risks to human health and safety. Given the efficiency gains arising from the streamlining of the approval process and the absence of opposition to the proposed changes, the committee supported strongly the amendment to this legislation. So I think the public can be reassured, and we need in this place to reassure ourselves, that, along with these changes, we are indeed looking after the health of those who might consume these products.

One of the sore points in my electorate a few years ago revolved around current growers who had to meet the most rigorous standards in terms of any chemicals and pesticides they sprayed on their products. They were dismayed to learn that we have products being imported into this country where no such safeguards are required. The food is packaged in another country and then brought here and sold more cheaply than our producers can produce it, because we do require producers to go through a rigorous process. All of that adds to the cost of production, so anything we can do which removes red tape in a safe way has to be welcomed by those of us who represent food producers in our electorates.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate. I was very interested to read the Senate committee’s report and was reassured that the amendments we are passing in this place today have health and safety as an important keystone in this amending legislation.