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Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Page: 2032


Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (12:29): We've just listened to 15 minutes of empty rhetoric from the member for New England. It's interesting to note that this legislation was introduced into the House by the member for New England back in October last year. At the time he introduced it, he spoke for what might have been maybe one or two minutes at most in a half-page speech to the House. Now he comes into the House about four months later and does a 15-minute diatribe on what he thinks his achievements were as the minister for agriculture.

I speak in support of the amendment moved by the member for Hunter in respect of the Imported Food Control Amendment (Country of Origin) Bill 2017. This is important legislation. It's important for several reasons, but I want to go to the heart of what this bill is all about. Firstly, it increases importers' accountability for food safety in this country; secondly, it improves the monitoring and management of new and emerging food safety risks; and, thirdly, it improves the incident responses by government. They are three critical matters, and I will go to why they are in just a moment.

Responsibility for these matters effectively rests with both the federal government and each of the state and territory governments—and, through an agreement we have with New Zealand, it also includes New Zealand. Indeed, FSANZ, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, developed the code that incorporates the standards that apply right across Australia and into New Zealand in respect of food safety matters.

It's important legislation because in 2015-16 Australia imported $18 billion worth of food into this country. Interestingly, only two years earlier, in 2013-14, the figure was $15 billion. In other words, over two years there was a 20 per cent increase in food that was imported into Australia, and, based on the most recent five years of figures, it represents roughly a 10 per cent continuing increase in the value of processed food that is brought into Australia and about seven per cent in the value of unprocessed foods on an annual basis. So we can expect that we will continue to see an increase in the amount of food that comes into Australia, which is somewhat surprising, given that we are generally considered as a food-producing nation—yet, simultaneously, we continue to increase the amount of food that comes into Australia.

Again, there's a reason for that—perhaps not a good reason, but there is a reason for that—and that is that most of our raw food is exported to overseas countries; the processing takes place in other countries and then the food is sent back to Australia. It's disappointing that the processing isn't done here in Australia, where in the past it was and where it should continue to be. It's disappointing not only because it affects our economy but also because, quite frankly, the processing standards that we apply in Australia are generally considered to be much better than the processing standards applied in many of the countries that those operations have been transferred to.

Most of the food that comes into Australia now comes from New Zealand, the US, China, Thailand and Singapore. Indeed, if we look at the South-East Asian countries from which we import food, collectively, as a single source, the highest amount of food is coming from those countries. Individually, those countries are still behind New Zealand, the USA and China, but the food that comes from them collectively adds up to as much as the food that comes in from any other country. And countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia continue to grow as places where food is processed and then exported back to Australia.

The concern about that happening is not just because of the processing in the facilities in those countries and the standards they apply, which I doubt very much would be on a par with the standards in Australia, but also because much of the food that comes into Australia is actually grown in those countries, again under conditions that would not be acceptable in Australia. If Australians were aware of some of the stories that I have been told about growing methods used overseas—in terms of the contamination of the land on which products are grown, the chemicals that are used and so on—they would probably not want to buy the food. But they are not aware, and so we rely on governments to ensure that, when food is imported, it does meet certain standards.

That's why this legislation is important. At the very least, we rely on governments to ensure that we have laws in place which clearly identify where the food comes from so that consumers can then make their own choice based on where the food they wish to buy comes from and which particular food they wish to buy.

And that's understandably so, because, only a couple of years ago we had the berry scare, which resulted in some 33 cases of hepatitis. It is interesting that, whilst the source of the contamination, where it came from, was, I believe, never formally confirmed, there was a belief or a perception that those berries came from a producer in China, and so the importer of those berries saw their profit drop from $16 million to $2 million almost overnight. This shows that Australian consumers want to know where their food comes from, and, if they have a concern, they will choose to buy their food from elsewhere. Rightly or wrongly, whether that supplier was responsible or not, consumers wanted to avoid whatever risks they thought they were facing if they bought their product from them.

It's not just the berry issue that has come to light in recent years that has caused concern for consumers in Australia. There are other concerns that relate to the knowledge of where food comes from. When we look at the food that has been recalled in recent years—and I just want to go through some of the statistics with respect to this—in the decade between 2007 and 2017, there were 608 recalls of different foods across Australia. That's not 608 items; that's 608 particular types of foods, which you could multiply into tens of thousands of products. The breakdown of those recalls is as follows: undeclared allergens, 205 recalls; microbial contamination, 187 recalls; foreign matter in foods, 112 recalls; biotoxins, 36 recalls; chemical contamination, 26 recalls; and other recalls 25. Labelling recalls were made on only 17 occasions.

The critical question is: how many of those recalls related to imported foods? That information is not made clear, but it would be interesting to know. I particularly make that point with respect to undeclared allergens in food or labelling not accurately telling you what's in the food because in 2013 a young 10-year-old boy died from drinking coconut milk. It had other milk in it that was not listed on the package. The boy was allergic to the other milk and died. There was another case, involving coconut oil, where a young person also suffered an allergic reaction. The reality is that we are talking about people's lives here and the risks they face when food is either contaminated or not properly labelled, and so the consumer doesn't know exactly what it is that they are consuming.

The other matter relating to knowing where food comes from and the risks faced by Australian farmers is the infestation of Australian produce by overseas products that have not been properly grown. We saw that with white spot disease and the devastation that it caused the Queensland prawn industry only a year or so ago. More recently, fruit fly have been found in Tasmania, and they, in turn, could ruin the livelihoods of Tasmanian farmers. Again, this means tens of thousands of dollars in losses to individuals and millions of dollars in losses to the local economy, and additional losses to the whole economy of people who rely on those particular producers. Whilst the minister and the government come into the House and talk up the regulations that we have in place, the reality is that those regulations are not matched with the resourcing that is required to implement and carry out those regulations, and to police them. If they were, it would be very unlikely that white spot in the prawn industry or fruit fly in Tasmania would ever have occurred. They would have been found at the border.

My understanding is that very few of the foods that are imported into Australia are, indeed, ever checked out and inspected by the authorities. I note that in the six months ending June 2014 there were some 44,648 tests of imported food undertaken as part of the inspection regime. The compliance rate was listed as 98.5 per cent, with 79 per cent of the noncompliance being due to breaches of labelling requirements. That might sound very encouraging, but the reality is that even 1½ per cent noncompliance for packaged foods that come by the millions each year into this country can still result in huge devastation either to an industry or to individuals if the food isn't up to standard. So I'm not comforted by those figures. Indeed, quite frankly, we need to do a lot better than that.

I want to talk briefly to the amendment moved by the member for Hunter on behalf of Labor. It reads:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that a distracted Turnbull Government has failed to implement effective policies in a timely manner to ensure that Australian agriculture is achieving its full potential".

That's the amendment that we will be moving in this place. I want to say two things in respect of that amendment. If you are a farmer—perhaps a cattle grower, sheep farmer, grain grower or even cotton farmer—then under this government you may get a look in. You may get some support. But if you're a farmer in South Australia or Tasmania, where the National Party have no representation, all you get is patronising lip service. We saw that not only with respect to the situation in Tasmania—and the member for Braddon quite properly articulated how this government has ignored the Tasmanian farmers—but also in South Australia a couple of years ago when there was serious flooding in the northern plains. The vegetable growers in that area received almost no support whatsoever. They received a visit from the Prime Minister, and that was about it. They were also devastated. They don't have farms that run into the thousands of acres, but they still have farms that turn over millions of dollars and, for many of them, their whole season's produce was destroyed. We see that if you're a fruit and vegetable grower or a horticultural grower somewhere else in Australia then you just get pushed to one side. We've seen that with the Shepparton growers in Victoria as well. So I say to this government: get real about your agricultural policy, because it seems to be targeted at one sector and one sector only, and it certainly is not targeted in support of all farmers across all of Australia.

The last matter I want to touch on is the issue of free trade agreements. Members of government come into this place and laud their free trade agreements as though they are going to be the saviours of our farming industry. Yet the same members would know full well that from day one Australia has relied on our farming industry as one of our major sources of exports. In fact, the export of Australian farming products has occurred ever since Australia was established as a farming country and before any free trade agreements were in place. I've looked at some of the figures relating to China. I know many farmers at a very personal level. Most of them have been trading with China for a decade or two, and they didn't rely on free trade agreements to do so. The truth of the matter is that, in a global market, if you have a product that is in demand at the right price then you will have a market for it anywhere in the world. When you do away with tariffs, you have to consider that you are dealing with a product where the prices go up and down. It is the same with exchange rates. It is not tariffs that make the real difference to whether people can export overseas.