Senate debates

Monday, 15 March 2010

Food Importation (Bovine Meat Standards) Bill 2010

Third Reading

4:09 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Food Importation (Bovine Meat Standards) Bill 2010. I learn all the time and I am most interested in the contribution by Senator O’Brien in the last couple of moments with regard to what he referred to as the gag. He might care to go back and read the Hansard and the 20 minutes of the contribution by Senator Sterle the other day on this particular issue in which, by his admission, he said nothing and had nothing to say. In contrast to that, Senator O’Brien actually did, and I hope to draw the attention of the Senate to some of those comments.

The motion which I support reads ‘a bill for an act to ensure equivalence to Australian production standards in the importation of bovine meat and meat products, and for related purposes’. It is important for the Australian community, for beef processors and producers that this bill be understood and passed. There are three essential elements to the bill and they relate to these three areas: firstly, herd identification and a trace-back system; secondly, import risk analysis; and, thirdly, food labelling.

The first essential is that bovine meat and meat products not be imported into Australia until the minister—not bureaucrats—is satisfied that the originating country has in place a program equivalent to Australia’s superior national livestock herd identification system. Why do I emphasise equivalence? Because, in his contribution the other day, Senator O’Brien expressed great concern that we were demanding exactly the same national herd identification system that Australia has. At no time have we demanded this and the bill speaks about it.

I have established with representatives of the Australian cattle industry, in the four hearings that we have had into this issue, that they concur with me that it is essential that we do have that level of equivalence. There is ample evidence, in the Hansard of the public meetings, that support is given by the Cattle Council and others associated with the cattle industry for this. Why is trace-back important? Because it is essential that we can trace back, in the event of any untoward event or activity associated with meat for human consumption, from the retail shelves through the processor to the abattoir, and from the abattoir to the farms that may have provided animals on that particular occasion. Through the excellence of the scheme we have, Australia leads the world in this. Regrettably, many of the countries that have indicated an interest in importing beef and beef products from Australia have indicated to this date that they are not interested in that process.

The second essential element in this bill that I speak of is that we demand and require a full import risk analysis to be undertaken before bovine meat or meat products can be imported into Australia from countries which have had BSE diagnosed in their herds. I am delighted that, as a result of the public hearings we have had, the evidence before us and the community interest that has been engendered as a result, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has seen fit to endorse this view and to enact it. This is critically important in what I hope will become support by everybody in this chamber for the bill.

Thirdly, the bill calls for action on food labelling. It calls for action by the minister, within 28 days from its commencement, that a labelling standard relating to the country of origin of the beef or beef products coming into Australia be determined. Again—second leg of the trifecta and I should be at the gallops—I am delighted to record that the minister, with the committee and our findings into the fact that food labelling of this type is appropriate, is prepared to move in that direction. It is tremendous that that committee—supported, I hope, on this particular occasion behind the scenes by Senators O’Brien and Sterle—had some influence on the minister in that regard. The most critical aspect of this process is that it must be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny and ministerial accountability before decisions are made to change policies of such critical importance. We have not in the past had the circumstance that beef or a product coming into this country has had the prospect or the possibility, however remote, that it might end up causing a fatal disease of humans, in variant CJD, or indeed a disease of cattle, as in BSE. Remote, yes, but there is no precedent for this.

Australia is, and will remain, a full participant in free-trade activities between countries. We lead the world in this regard, especially as it relates to agricultural commodities. There is no reason for any other country to attempt to mount a case that Australia in some way is in default in this way, and anybody who claims that is being mischievous.

The World Trade Organisation dictates that a country shall not impose any restrictions or hurdles on a would-be importing country or its producers that it does not impose on itself. In this case, Australia enjoys the highest possible health rating for beef and its products and we have a trace-back system, which I have recorded as being world’s best practice. Therefore, there is no capacity for any other country to bring the allegation against Australia that we are demanding of others what we do not already demand of ourselves. It completely complies with World Trade Organisation edicts.

It is not adequate, from the viewpoint of the Australian community, that such a critical policy change be delegated to bureaucrats in the absence of ministerial responsibility and accountability, and these are points that increasingly became apparent as we had our public meetings in December last year and February this year. The committee investigating the BSE issue was faced with the prospect that this entire action could be taken as a result of policy change and implemented by departmental officers with no ministerial direction.

I have the utmost respect for my veterinary colleagues and others for their competence and integrity when it comes to this particular activity. However, they should not have the burden placed on them of implementing policies without ministerial direction, parliamentary scrutiny or ministerial accountability. This bill provides exactly for that process and it is the reason why it should be supported by everybody in this chamber. This is what the parliament is about—taking responsibility for major decisions that affect the Australian community.

To illustrate my point, I draw the chamber’s attention to information—only received on Thursday of last week—that in late February Canada had diagnosed its 18th case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. But the Canadians delayed this announcement to both the international animal health organisation, the OIE, and their American colleagues for some two weeks into this year. You might ask, ‘What is the significance of that?’ The case was confirmed on 25 February. It only came to public attention last week and there are those amongst US producer and consumer groups that say it only came to attention as a result of their pressure. It is important because some 4,000 older bulls and cows per week are transported from Canada into the United States, animals of an age that would potentially be able to contract BSE—of an age as this particular Angus cow was diagnosed on 25 February. Both Canada and the United States have had BSE diagnosed and would be interested in importing product into this country. So the case is relevant, the case is important and it does deserve the attention we are giving it. Further, it is important to understand that once cattle from Canada come into the United States they are allowed to mingle with the US herd. There are no restrictions on them entering the US food chain and, furthermore, they enter the non-ruminant US animal-feeding system. All of those issues are important to us.

A full import risk analysis provides that high level of surety that the Australian community, consumers, producers and processors have every right to expect. It is a process in which relatively competent Australian officials can consider all aspects pertaining to the risk associated with importing beef from those countries; but, more to the point, it allows our officers, as part of the IRA process, to visit the countries that may nominate to import beef into Australia. They can investigate all the standards of herd identification, trace-back from property of origin to abattoir and trace-back through abattoir to processors and processors onto the retail shelves. It allows them to examine all the processes of those activities and to assure us that Australia enjoys world’s best practice. If we do not, it enables us to modify our management so that we do.

Mistakes have been made in the past by our Quarantine officials. They have learned from their mistakes. We all hope they do not repeat them. But a full risk import analysis allows them to review their own standards and to advise government on possible budgetary or other allocations that may be necessary either in countries which would import to Australia or at our shores at the port of importation so that they can give effect to the safety that Australian consumers require.

I refer again to the food labelling laws in this country—and if this bill does nothing else it draws attention to the fact that there is a radical and urgent need for overhaul of our food labelling laws. Consumers in this country have the right to know the origin of each component of foodstuffs they are contemplating purchasing. It is an insult to have a product imported into this country, packaged or repackaged in Australia and presented on the shelves as Australian made or as an Australian product. It is an insult and should be stopped. If the food labelling edict contained within the bill we are proposing has any effect at all, it should be to stop it. For example, in the United States, if a consumer is eating hamburger meat which has been produced in Australia, that consumer knows that that beef is of Australian origin. Fortunately for us and for the reputation of our industry, it is actually a selling point. We deserve the same and so do our consumers.

I commend this bill to the Senate. I hope that it will enjoy bipartisan support, both in this place and the other. The minister has seen fit to effectively endorse two components of the platform upon which we have drafted this bill, leaving only what I would refer to as the ‘gate to plate’ trace back element of the bill to be determined. As the bill states, the action is to ensure equivalence to Australian production standards in the importation of bovine meat and meat products. A critically important element of the Australian offer is our capacity to trace back from the retail shelves through the processor and the abattoir to the farm of origin. Others as yet have not achieved this. Until such time as they do, they should not be contemplating selling into this market. It requires ministerial accountability, not bureaucratic implementation. I commend the bill to the chamber.


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