Monday, 2 March 2015
Matters of Urgency
I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, two senators each submitted letters in accordance with standing order 75. Senator Siewert proposed a matter of urgency and Senator Moore proposed a matter of public importance for discussion. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot.
As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Siewert:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move that, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:
"The need for the Abbott Government to immediately implement Country of Origin food labelling legislation to protect public health and Australian farmers."
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the Clerks to set the clock accordingly.
That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:
The need for the Abbott Government to immediately implement Country of Origin food labelling legislation to protect public health and Australian farmers.
I rise today to absolutely suggest that we get on with the issue of country-of-origin labelling. We do not need any more discussion; we do not need any more reports to cabinet. We can legislate for it right now. We all know that there have been 18 cases of hepatitis A across four states related to the contamination of berries. That has brought clearly into focus the need for having clear labelling of our food products in Australia.
This matter has a long history. It has not just been thought of in the last five minutes. Frankly, it was a joke to hear the agriculture minister suggesting that people have just got on the bandwagon at the last minute. In fact, in 1998 my former colleague, former senator Bob Brown, moved amendments to the 'Made in Australia' legislation and they were not supported by anyone in the Labor Party or the coalition at that time. He tried again in 2005 and, once again, the coalition and Labor opposed the Greens 'Truth in labelling' bill in the Senate. Come 2009—and this would be of interest to former Senator Joyce, now Minister Joyce—former senator Bob Brown, Senator Xenophon and Barnaby Joyce co-introduced a bill to require FSANZ to develop and approve food product labelling standards to be used by food producers, manufacturers and distributors.
Three times since then I have introduced this legislation. It has been through Senate inquiries. We have been through it endless times and, as a result of all those inquiries, it is now very clear what we need to do. We need to change it so that we get rid of that nonsense: 'Made from imported and local ingredients.' No-one knows what that means. No-one knows how much of what in any packet or product is imported or how much is local and, if so, which bits? Nothing. What now needs to be done is very clear: we need a table that stipulates that all significant ingredients are Australian and that, where all processing is undertaken in Australia, it must be labelled with either 'Product of Australia' or 'Produce of Australia.'
Where there has been a substantial transformation—that is, where manufacturing has gone into it—then it needs to be labelled 'Manufactured in Australia' or 'Australian Manufactured.' That clearly tells you that it was substantially transformed here to Australian health and safety standards. It makes no inference about where the product actually came from in the first place, but it tells you that it was actually manufactured here. We have also opted to do this in a positive way so that you can say 'manufactured here using Australian milk', or 'using' some other product. Cadbury, for example, could do chocolate 'manufactured in Australia from Australian milk'. We need to do that. The third category is when it just packaged in Australia. If it only says 'packaged in Australia' then you can make the assumption that it has been grown and brought here, and sliced up and put on to a tray with gladwrap or whatever on it.
We know what to do. We have been through this a thousand times. It is now the job of government to get on with it. But what we have seen is that the minute we get to this stage, the big food manufacturers move in, make big donations to the Liberal, Labor and National parties and suddenly there are a thousand technical reasons why this cannot go ahead. Do not do it again. Do not listen to the food and beverage council. We have had it time and time again—the multinational food corporations buy off the major parties and that is an end to it. We now need to fix this.
It is not just about labelling—this is, of course, about labelling, but you have to see the trade agreements in the same category. We cannot allow free trade agreements to make it harder for Australian farmers to be able to compete and sell their product in Australia. There are two issues here: let us get on with country of origin labelling. We know what to do. Do not put it off to endless more processes—let us get on with it. Please take the Greens bill. Let us discuss that. Let us get it through across this parliament. If you are serious about it, we can do it. If you are not then say that political donations are going to blow it up again. Let us have some honesty in this debate about where it needs to go. At the same time, with the discussion on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other free trade agreements, do not sign up to agreements that put Australian farmers at a disadvantage, where they comply with health and safety and environment standards and their overseas competitors do not have to do it.
I, too, rise today to speak on the urgency motion on country of origin labelling put forward by the Greens. Firstly, we need to be really clear what we are talking about here because there are actually two quite separate issues. One of them relates to country of origin labelling, which, despite what we have heard, does not actually protect public health. Public health, largely, is protected in this space when it comes to imported products or products on your shelf by the quarantine and testing regimes this country has in place. We need to make sure that we do not mix up these two very important issues. I am not saying for a minute that country of origin labelling is not an important issue. I assume this motion has been raised on the back of the mixed berries contamination issue of recent weeks. It should be said that the labelling on the packaging of those berries clearly said that they were made in China. Changing the country of origin labelling on that packet would not have done anything or gone any way to dealing with the issue that there was contamination of hepatitis A in that particular product. That would have only been dealt with by changing our quarantine and our testing requirements for imported products. So I just put that on the record.
If this issue of truth in labelling—and country of origin labelling is but one part of it—had been an easy issue to fix, it would have been fixed by now. This is a very, very complicated issue, and we have to remember that there is a number of players that potentially could be injured if we come up with a set of labelling laws or a set of requirements that could potentially make it detrimental to our Australian producers.
First of all, in dealing with country of origin labelling particularly, we need to establish whether we are talking about food products and only food products. If we are talking about food products then you have a completely different set of requirements, particularly in relation to the difference between the product that is contained—the actual product that is in the container—and the total package of the cost of the product that is on the shelf. I raise this because, in many instances, the product that is actually being sold may be a very small component of the overall cost of the product that is for sale. In many, many instances the packaging, the promotions and the like, and the treatment that occurs in Australia, is the lion's share of the cost of the product, and the actual primary product that is in the actual product is only a very, very small part of it.
So we come down to: what does the consumer want? How do we go about providing truth in labelling that allows the consumer to have some confidence of what they are getting without making it ridiculously onerous for the manufacturer or the producer to comply with? I raise this because of the recent House of Representatives agricultural committee inquiry into this very issue. The report has only recently been brought down. I would certainly suggest to Senator Milne and those who intend to participate in this debate that they get a copy of this particular committee's report because it is an excellent report. It does come to the conclusion that Senator Milne wants us to come to—that is, we have to do something about country of origin labelling and we have to do something about truth in labelling. It also highlights all of the little issues that collectively make up some very significant issues that are faced when trying to deal with this issue in too great a detail.
I can give you a couple of examples, and Senator Milne raised one in her discussions—that is, chocolate. Take an Australian chocolatier like the South Australian company Haigh's Chocolates as an example. We do not have the cocoa powder in Australia, the cacao powder, so they have to import their raw chocolate from overseas. Therefore, if Haigh's wanted to put on their label that their products were entirely Australian, they could not because they have to import this very important ingredient. Everything else that goes into their chocolate is grown, manufactured, sourced and packaged in Australia. Everything happens in Australia but this one vital ingredient of their product is imported—and, as you quite rightly would understand, it is a little hard to make chocolate without the chocolate ingredient—they would not be able to call it Australian made. As the people in this chamber would know, everybody in South Australia thinks of Haigh's Chocolates as being not only Australian but very, very much South Australian.
Another issue is where the majority of your product is made in Australia—take mixed nuts as an example. Your macadamia nuts, your cashew nuts and your almonds are all grown in Australia, but your brazil nuts or whatever have to come from overseas, and you may have to source them from different places during the time of year. If you were required to write on your label every single ingredient that goes to making your product as well as the country of origin, it would be an extraordinarily onerous task. The compliance would probably make it prohibitive for the manufacturer.
The point to make there is that, if we make these things so difficult for the manufacturers or the producers to comply with, we will actually end up disadvantaging our consumers. Right now the most heinous crime a producer can commit in this space is to put something on their label that is false, misleading or incorrect so, if we make the rules so terribly tight and onerous that it puts manufacturers in a position where they have to overcompensate, we will end up in the situation where they will not put on their label that their products are 90 per cent or 80 per cent Australian, that they are majority Australian, because of fear of not complying and the penalties that go with that.
I assure the mover of this motion that this government is very keen to improve our laws in relation to truth in labelling, particularly in country-of-origin labelling, and support in principle what has been moved here today but we need to be very careful. We need to move with some caution and ensure that when we bring down these new laws—and I assure the mover that we intend to do that—they are laws that are in the best interests of not only the consumer but Australian producers as well.
The best way to ensure that packaged and processed food is of acceptable quality is to buy Australian. The issues around Patties Foods arose from initial media reports of a consignment of berries that was taken from Peru to China, washed in contaminated water and then exported to Australia. Some food processors say the reason that they did not buy Australian is that wages in this country are too high. That was the proposition that was advanced by the management of Patties Foods when this story first emerged. It was argued that Australian wages were too high to justify the use of Australian products.
If ever there were a case of confusing the issue of price with the question of cost then surely this is one. What this crisis for Patties Foods has demonstrated is that the price of labour per punnet or the price of labour per bag of berries is only a fraction of the cost of production. In the case of Patties Foods it has become quite clear that the cost of not buying Australian has been profound when it comes to the future of that company. We could ask the same in regard to the buyers of Nanna's frozen berries. I am sure they would point to the fact that at the last count 21 people have been reported with hepatitis and tuck shops at many schools across this nation have been stocked with poisoned berries.
The Chairman of Patties Foods has since this issue arose in fact discovered the real cost to the business of not buying Australian. In recent days he has in fact changed his argument. The argument now is that there is not sufficient capacity from Australian producers to supply his company. I find this an unusual argument. The fact that there is not sufficient capacity may well be true but that is a direct consequence of the policies that have been pursued by our food processors in not buying Australian, because we know of course capacity is developed as a consequence of people actually buying Australian product.
Consumers have a right to know exactly where their food comes from. That is why we have laws setting out what information should be placed on labels of packaged food. Consumers also have a right to expect that the contents of their food will not harm them. There is a responsibility here not just for the producers of food but also for the sellers of food and for the governments that regulate the production and distribution of food. The present system of food labelling clearly has not worked as it should. The frozen berries scare is a reminder of a number of lessons: that labelling needs to set out accurate and reliable information and that it needs to state the origins of food and where food has been processed. It is also the responsibility of regulators to be able to ensure the quality of food that is sold to the public.
The Prime Minister has indicated that the government is considering changes to the laws in regard to country-of-origin labelling. Country-of-origin labelling has been a long-festering issue in trade circles, particularly in periods of free trade agreements, because it is not always clear where a food originates. Labor welcome this commitment and we are more than happy to work with the government on this matter to ensure—for both consumers and producers—that we are able to get high-quality food in this country and that we are not placed in the situation where regulators force Australian-made out of business. We want to ensure that the necessary changes occur with proper consultation with manufacturing industries, other stakeholders as well as consumers.
Senator Milne, the response I am hearing from the Greens seems to suggest that this matter can be fixed almost immediately as if by waving a magic wand. There is no magic wand in this matter. In fact, an overly hasty, knee-jerk response may make a bad situation worse. It is important to ensure that labelling requirements are consistent, as the measures that are taken will cut across a whole range of products. It is also easy to ensure that labelling is clear and concise and actually means something. It is necessary to proceed in that context carefully and with appropriate consultation so that we do not have unintended consequences.
I say that on behalf of the 190,000 Australians who work in food-processing industries. They have rights as well, in this matter. We have to ensure that 'Australian made' means something and that it is a description that people can have confidence in. Placing an undue burden on food manufacturing may well have the perverse effect of sending food manufacturing offshore. I want to ensure that people can have confidence in the quality of their food and the quality of food processing in this country.
I say again that buying Australian is the best solution for such a situation, but it has to mean something in the way it is administered. The best way, however, is not to suggest as your starting point that the cost of labour in this country is too high and, as a consequence, you are obliged to import. We know that to be fallacious and, given the circumstances that have arisen with berries, we now understand what the cost to that company has been, not to mention the cost to the 21 people who have contracted hepatitis.
If labelling laws are to change, it is necessary to harmonise Commonwealth legislation with state and territory laws, and the government has to make sure that these arrangements are done in a nationally consistent way. The Minister for Agriculture proposed a diagrammatical approach to food labelling. The real concern for consumers here is that the final product may well not be any clearer, in terms of its source of origin, by as simple a device as that. However, it is an idea that is worth exploring. It is not clear whether replacing the generally informative labels with a pie chart or a similar diagram will, in fact, end up being a practical solution.
The solution to the food-labelling crisis will not be found in gimmicks, it will not be found in stunts and it will not be found by appearing in sound bites on the evening news. We have had a report that has been produced by parliamentary committees but it appears to have had little attention by government. We have had an issue that has been developed for some time in this parliament without any real progress by governments. The government has neglected biosecurity as it has neglected manufacturing, more generally.
The frozen berry scare has demonstrated that the abolition of the post of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity was an ill-judged decision. The government should urgently conclude its review of the biosecurity risk import assessment, which is now a year overdue. It is simply not good enough to abandon the Buy Australian at Home and Abroad program, which was initiated by the previous government. It has become a victim of yet another cost-cutting device by this government. The Buy Australian at Home and Abroad campaign allowed people to be encouraged to buy Australian, which is how we develop capacity and how we develop the skills necessary in Australia. We want to make sure that the opportunities for Australian industry to build skills and produce markets are the way in which we can most effectively help in developing Australian industry.
This government has ripped $82 million from Australian participation plans, which was a key pillar of the Buy Australian at Home and Abroad suite of measures. (Time expired)
I strongly support this urgency motion. There has been a distinct absence of political will for many years to deal with this issue. I note as recently as 2011 that the Blewett review Labelling logic was tabled—a very comprehensive review by Dr Blewett and not radical in its recommendations. It was tabled on 28 January 2011, yet there was no action by the former government nor was there any appetite by the then opposition to deal with this issue. This is an important issue. If you give consumers a choice, they will act accordingly.
We know in the Northern Territory, in terms of seafood-labelling laws, at takeaway shops and restaurants where you have to specify whether it is local or imported seafood, there has been a real boost to local produce. More and more people buy local produce. They are willing to pay a premium for clean, green Australian produce. We know from barramundi farmers and prawn farmers of Australia that thousands of jobs could be created if we could only improve our labelling laws.
The major parties should not have been surprised by the outcry for these laws in recent weeks. In that, I do not include the Nationals, because they have been long-time advocates of decent food-labelling laws. It is unfortunate that it has taken more than 20 Australians to fall victim to hepatitis A, apparently contracted from imported frozen berries processed in China, to trigger a groundswell for change. I applaud the agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, for his announcement last week that commits the government to improvements in the current imported food-labelling requirements, but I fear there will be others in the coalition who will try and stymie him.
I know that Minister Joyce has been committed to this issue for some time. In fact, in 2009, we jointly sponsored, along with then Senator Bob Brown, a bill on this issue. There is now a similar bill that Senator Milne has introduced that I am co-sponsoring with pride. I will work constructively with the government on this issue because the problem is serious and long overdue for reform. Our labelling laws allow for the exploitation of farmers and the duping of consumers. They allow for words like 'made in Australia' to be twisted and contorted to be effectively meaningless, in many cases.
We know that the hepatitis Aoutbreak also highlighted our inadequate food-safety regime, set up by FSANZ and carried out, in part, by the agriculture department. For several years, the European Union, Canada and the US have seen similar hepatitis Acontamination scares linked to imported frozen berries, and yet authorities here sat on their hands. As country-of-origin labelling reforms are hammered out in coming weeks, we need to keep in mind absurd situations like one heard by the Senate select committee inquiry into food processing. Fish caught in the Atlantic Ocean by a South Korean flagged ship was sent to China for processing and then to New Zealand for further processing. It was then sent to Australia, where it was crumbed, packaged and sold to an unsuspecting public as 'made in Australia' fish. That misled consumers and cheated local Australian-made fish producers.
The details are yet to emerge of what the government is proposing but, apparently, a diagram will be used and consumers will be told what percentage of the product is from Australia. It sounds like a positive step. We must resist the lobby in this, and I urge Senator Carr to consider this.
If we have decent food-labelling laws, if they are practical, if they are workable, then we will see increased employment in the sector. More Australians will be employed in the manufacturing sector. The rorting of 'Made in Australia' labels, using the packaging trick, is common and it has to stop. Including packaging as part of the value is wrong.
Orange growers in the Riverland are being sold down the river by juice processors who, after transport costs, pay zero, zilch, a crate for Australian oranges. My friend Ron Gray from the Riverland, who has been a passionate advocate for this issue, has made this point on many occasions. He recently had a situation where he got nothing for his oranges after transport costs to the processors were taken into account. That is wrong. The processors juice the oranges, mixing the juice with cheap imported concentrate sometimes, and then sell it to supermarkets as made in Australia because it was packaged here.
The government could move today to set up an internet site to instantly update the country-of-origin status of all imported food in Australia. That would not be difficult. It could be done. Logistically, it gets away from the arguments of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, who have been too powerful in this. We have the information available to do it but we just have not done it, and we need to do so. These are important issues that must be dealt with. If there is some political will, we can at least give consumers that instant access online, as an interim measure. That in itself would be very powerful, because I believe the media will pick up on those juices, those foods, that do not have as much Australian content as we thought they did by virtue of the misleading 'Made in Australia' label. Real choice would be placed in the hands of Australians for the first time—the choice to buy on quality and safety ahead of price alone. In many cases we can compete well in relation to that. We need to bite the bullet on this for Australian farmers and consumers alike. We need to reform our food-labelling laws as a matter of urgency.
I would like to contribute to this matter-of-urgency debate on country-of-origin food-labelling laws. For 20 years I have been on this issue of proper country-of-origin labelling. Back in the early nineties, when the Hawke Labor government allowed the importing of pig meat from places such as Canada and Denmark, the meat was brought into Australia and processed into ham and bacon, and they put on the package 'Manufactured in Australia'. Australians thought they were eating Australian-grown pork. I was a pig farmer, along with my brother Peter, and we suffered immensely because of that allowance of the importing of pig meat and the totally confusing labelling systems that we have now had for decades in this country.
I want to make a point here. I hope those opposite support what Prime Minister Abbott and Minister Joyce announced last week, but I was concerned about Senator Cameron's interjections in question time today when I asked a question to Senator Abetz about foreign investment and the buying of Australian farms. My second supplementary question was about Minister Joyce debating Shadow Minister Fitzgibbon. Shadow Minister Fitzgibbon said, 'I'll debate you anywhere, anytime,' or words to that effect. So Minister Joyce said, 'Woolbrook, up in the New England Range.' Senator Cameron's interjection was, 'He's gone to the wilderness!' The New England Range is a wilderness? It is a highly productive agricultural region of our nation. It produces a lot of beef and a lot of lamb. There is good stock-carrying capacity in that land. For someone to say it is a wilderness, especially someone who is the Labor duty senator for New England—I am sure the people of New England would not be impressed to hear that comment.
But back to this labelling issue: as I said, for 20 years I have pursued this. At recent hearings into the labelling of seafood, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee heard that Australis barramundi is actually farmed in Vietnam. Barramundi is a sought-after delicacy that Australians so like to eat. Barramundi is an Aboriginal name. You would think Australis barramundi would be Australian grown. No. It is actually farmed in Vietnam. It is misleading, and thank goodness the ACCC are looking at that now.
Seventy per cent of the seafood we eat comes from overseas. We were told by Matthew Evans, in evidence at Sydney, in relation to overseas fish farms:
I was on a fish farm in China. We went and had a look at fish growing in tanks, then we went out to the farms and they were telling me how good it was. But when I was at the farm there were cigarette butts, an oil slick, polystyrene floating through the farm and dogs guarding the farms were defecating in the water next to the farm. That concerns me. That system would not be an applicable system for us to have in Australia. I have also been to fish farms in Tasmania, inland New South Wales and various places, and seen the system we have here. So, yes, they are not up to standard compared to Australia.
As a fifth-generation farmer, I am very proud of the clean, green food we produce in this nation. We have an excellent reputation here in Australia and right across the world. That is why we have got the huge increase in the demand for our beef and our dairy products, for example.
I will give another example. The honey industry has been hammered by overseas products, particularly from Turkey. The honey industry even did their own testing to prove that a lot of it was only corn syrup, and the ACCC eventually acted, after I started raising it with them. This resulted in a company paying penalties totalling $30,600 after getting three infringement notices in relation to 'Victoria Honey'. You would think, seeing Victoria Honey on the shelf, 'That's honey produced down there in Victoria by our great hardworking beekeepers.' No. It was corn syrup brought from Turkey. This is where the whole labelling system is so misleading. The ACCC also took the company to task for representing the product as originating from Victoria, Australia, when in fact, as I said, the product was from Turkey. Here is another case. Bera Foods paid a penalty of $10,200 because the ACCC considered that, by using the word 'honey' and including a map of Australia on the label, it misrepresented the product as Australian honey, when in fact it was mainly sugars and came from Turkey. This is just crazy.
Back to the fishing industry in the Northern Territory—and Senator Sterle chaired that committee inquiry: when the people of the Northern Territory were informed, because it became law, of what they were eating in the fish and chip shops, in the restaurants, everywhere, and whether it was Australian or imported fish, then guess what: the sales of Australian-grown fish from the barramundi farm up there went through the roof. Their production has gone up, their jobs have gone up, their income has gone up, and no doubt the tax take for Canberra will be going up, because people are not being fooled by the Australis barramundi farmed in Vietnam. They are actually being told the truth. We need to bring that system in right across the nation. Have the blackboard out at the fish and chip shop. Let them know whether they are selling Australian grown fish or fish from overseas.
The current system can be so confusing and misleading. As I said, for 20 years I have seen that there is a need for change in this position. The sooner these laws get into place, the better. We have to give business time, in my opinion, to use up their old labels—say, 12 months—but let them bring in a system where, when people go shopping, they can clearly see whether the food they are about to eat was grown in Australia, is fully imported or is a blend of both. The labelling system as it is now is simply confusing.
I organised a meeting in Sydney probably 18 months ago, with Choice, New South Wales Farmers, AUSVEG et cetera, trying to get common ground through representatives of those groups I just mentioned. Yes, it is difficult, but if we keep it simple then we can get a system in place so that, when Australians go shopping, they know what they are buying. On imported product, the print needs to be greater. Sometimes it is hidden. Often you finish a meal and you might pick up a container and realise where it is made, and you think, 'I never knew that.' The name often is misleading so that they can get market share here. Of course, many of the big supermarkets are buying this product for one reason: more profit margin. It is as simple as that. That is why they buy the cheap imported product. Let's have a good labelling system, support Australian farmers and buy Australian.
I too look forward to making my contribution on this urgency motion. This is an interesting topic. It has been going on in this place and states' houses for years and years and years. In fact, it is one of those conversations, believe it or not, that can be a barbecue stopper. The amount of interest is amazing. When you talk to ordinary Australians—and I know that is a challenge for us in this place here, but we are outside talking to ordinary Aussies—it is of major importance. Aussies want to know where their food comes from.
I just want to touch on the announcement by the Prime Minister, Minister Joyce and Minister Macfarlane the other day. I have to say that at least they are going to do something, but the political blowtorch has been put to them. I have been on the record numerous times as chair of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport legislation and references committees, through government and opposition, that I have absolutely no faith in our labelling laws—none at all. I have not hidden that. Maybe I could have used different words, but when all is said and done it is a load of bull. Our labelling laws are absolutely disgraceful, as is how governments all over the country have allowed this to go on.
They have had no political guts to take this on, because there is this massive lobby. The Food and Grocery Council are the leaders of this debate, ably backed and supported by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. There is a common thread there, and it is their CEO, or previous CEO, Ms Kate Carnell. She has been a real advocate for not having any truth in labelling. She has not hidden that, and I have numbers of quotes where she has come out and called it unnecessary red tape or knee-jerk reactions. Well, when 21 people come down with hepatitis A, I do not think it is a knee-jerk reaction when the people of Australia say, 'Hang on; all we want is informed choice.'
The majority of us in this place who have had discussions, arguments and blues over food labelling in Australia are not anti bringing in food from overseas, because we have to remember that 70 per cent of the seafood that we consume is imported. So we are not against it. All we want is for the consumers to be able to make an informed decision. We want consumers to walk into a restaurant, a pub, a bar, a takeaway food outlet, a cafe or the supermarket, be able to pick up a menu or product, and actually know that it is not lying—if it says it is Australian made, it is Australian made. You know what? If 90 per cent of it is not Australian made, tell the people where it has come from.
I want to talk about something that Senator Williams touched on. Senator Williams, Senator Xenophon, Senator Bullock, Senator Lines, Senator Whish-Wilson and I had a couple of hearings in the seafood inquiry, one in Sydney and then one in Darwin. The common thread that came through was that the seafood industry support labelling—putting on there that it is either Australian seafood or imported. We are not worried which river or farm it came out of or what part of the world it came from. All we want is for the consumer to know where that piece of fish, prawn fritter, crabstick or whatever it may be came from.
I thank my fellow senators, because the report that we came out with was a work of collegiate style. There were no blues. We were all in agreement, because in our committee we take forward this belief: we want to do what is best for Australia. We are not interested in the stupid little political games that are played on some committees. Some of the committees, unfortunately, get tangled up in that. We do not, and the proof is in our reports and in our work. We might argue amongst ourselves and we will get into it, but at the end of the day we want what is best for our country.
So it was a decision of the committee when I suggested to them, 'Why don't we go up to the Northern Territory?' because the Northern Territory has mandated laws that say, 'You must state where this seafood came from.' We travelled up there, and we wanted to meet with people who were opposed when it was originally brought in—in about 2009, I think—by the previous government. I think it was the previous Labor government that brought it in, but it does not matter if it was Labor or Liberal; it is there, and it is a great thing.
So we met with the Australian Hotels Association, who were adamantly opposed to mandated or compulsory labelling of seafood. We also met with fish and chip shop owners, restaurateurs and bar owners. There were a number of very impressive people, but I want to mention one person in particular. I think he had about seven or eight seafood outlets in the Northern Territory. Of course, part of the argument that always came through for why you could not change it was that it would be too hard; it would be red tape. This was Mr Jason Hanna. He said that at the time he was opposed, but he said quite clearly that it is absolutely no big deal to just add the word 'Australian' or 'imported'.
When you look at a lot of fine restaurants, they may have that wonderful menu, and you think that could be hard work. It is no different from the evidence that we took from Mr Simon Matthews, the owner of Pee Wee's at the Point, the top-notch restaurant in Darwin. What they all came out and said was that the best thing they did for their businesses, their consumers and their clients was to actually tell them where that seafood came from. They said that, when people would walk into the high-class restaurant, the fish and chip shop, the cafe or whatever and look at the menu, they expected to pay an extra dollar or two or three for that piece of fish, but when they found out it was Australian they all said, to a one, they were happy to do that. They were happy to be given the opportunity to make that choice, and that choice flowed through in sales boosts. Everyone we spoke to said that it has been fantastic; they wished it was done all over the place. That led the committee to its one recommendation: this system must be implemented throughout the country.
The committee visited Woolworths in Palmerston. I have had some blues with Coles, don't worry about that, and they will continue, but Woolworth and Coles actually put the signs on the trays of fish, prawns and oysters—whatever it was—showing where they are from. When we visited that supermarket and we went to the seafood counter, there were about eight trays of seafood product. Of the eight trays, six were Australian and two were imported. The manager of the Woolworth store in Palmerston said to us, 'The proof is there, because Australians want Australian seafood.' Those who do not want Australian seafood, for whatever reason, have the choice to take the cheaper option.
It is not only that. When we are buying Australian seafood, let us not forget about health and safety, but we are also proudly talking about Australian jobs. I have to tell you: I cannot see any downside when we are promoting Australian farmers, horticulture, agriculture and all the service industries that bounce off, hang off or rely on these valuable industries to our nation. Why should we duck and dive? Why should we be scared of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, led by Ms Kate Carnell and whoever else, or the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry because of red tape? This is a load of nonsense.
One of the one-liners we took from our inquiry in Darwin was from a very influential man in the Northern Territory seafood industry, Mr Bill Passey. Mr Passey is actually a West Aussie, but he started up Australia Bay Seafoods. I think they have five or six boats operating out of Darwin. Mr Passey said that they do all the hard work. They go out there and make sure that the stocks are sustainable and the industry is sustainable. They make sure they are employing Australians on their boats, on the wharf, waiting to get the freight off, and in their fish factories. They pay their taxes in Australia. They comply with all the environmental regulations and everything that goes with them. But he said that they are absolutely let down once they shut the truck doors and that product leaves. He said they get no support. There is no support for Australian jobs. When the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Food and Grocery Council are running this ridiculous scare campaign, we should not put any more burden on business. The Prime Minister himself was running that until last Friday. Thank goodness he has had a change of heart. It is amazing what happens when the political blowtorch goes on you. I want to make sure that we can make our food and our consumption choices ourselves with informed debate—but do you know what? I proudly stand here and say I cannot think of anything better than Australian farmers getting a fair crack. I could not think of anything better than Australian fishermen getting a fair crack.
It just irks me. We do not need any more inquiries. I know the Prime Minister and the ministers have called for inquiries. We have had numerous inquiries. This building has been swamped with food inquiries. There were inquiries in 2011, 2012 and 2013, there were two in 2014 and now we are going to have another one. We do not need any more. Get the fan out, walk into the tabling office, blow the dust off the reports we have there and bloody read them.
I rise again in this place to talk about country of origin labelling. One of the first debates I contributed to in this place was on a bill that Senator Bob Brown put before the parliament on the same issue: country of origin labelling. It is absolutely essential that Australians are able to make an informed choice on the products they are buying. There has been no better example than the debacle over berries over the last week or two of why people need to be able to make an informed choice. The contamination of berries issue has served to highlight, yet again, the inadequacies of our food regulatory system. Not only did the food authorities here know of the hepatitis A contamination in America and Europe; they did not take any action over here. There was no thought that we had to improve our regulatory processes here.
Australians were last week shocked to hear that 29 further importers were bringing in Chinese berries. They are not from the same food-processing centres—I acknowledge that—but we found out during estimates that those other processing centres have not been inspected. Food Standards Australia New Zealand is carrying out further risk assessment, but that will take 'some weeks'. The officials were not able to tell us when that risk assessment will be done. Have our regulatory bodies increased the level of assessment of berries as they are coming in as a result of the fact that we have had a contamination and 19 people now—another case emerged on Friday—have been infected with hepatitis A? No, they have not. Australians need to be able to read the labelling on the packages of the food that they are buying so they can make an informed choice. Where have these berries come from? Have they been imported? If so, where from? Have they been grown in Australia? Have the manufactured products that contain berries been manufactured with products grown in Australia or products grown overseas?
As has been articulated during this debate, the food-labelling bill could improve the trust between producers and consumers. It would make consumers more confident of what they are buying by simply reading the package. They would know whether it is grown in Australia, manufactured in Australia or simply processed in Australia. Until Australians can be absolutely confident of what they are buying, there is a sense of concern and mistrust about the safety of the food they are buying. Until our regulatory processes and the government can guarantee that they have done everything they can to ensure the safety of our food, people will be distrustful of what they are buying and what is outlined on the package of the goods they are buying.
Our food safety system in Australia needs some significant work before Australians can be very confident that the food they are buying is actually safe to consume. One of the key ways to do that is country-of-origin labelling. There is now a bill from the Greens and Senator Xenophon that is currently before this place. As has also been articulated in this place, we do not need any more inquiries or any more consultation about the fact that this bill is long overdue. Australians want it. The government does not need to consult any more: look at this bill and support this bill. They can do what they say they want to do, which is to give consumers confidence about what they are buying.
I want to start this afternoon by complimenting the Greens. I think I have probably been here for seven months and I have not said a kind word about the Greens, so it is remiss of me! But I do want to pay them a compliment this afternoon because I think the urgency motion they have put forward today is a very good one, a very timely one and a very urgent one.
It is good to see senators bringing issues to this chamber that are policy related—that are the issues that the people in Australia want us to talk about—issues they have wanted action on from us for years. This one is a very important issue and I am glad to see the government took some action last week. I do hear what Senator Siewert has to say, that we have been waiting years for this and why can we not do it tomorrow? Well, the government has announced precisely what it will do. Of course, now it has to make sure that those designs are put in place and that the appropriate regulations are made. In my understanding, that will be happening within months and not years, so that is a great thing.
I will get to the detailed design in a second, but I wanted to start by saying that this is not just something that Australians want, it is something that everybody everywhere wants. They want to know where their food comes from. It is an increasing issue across the world, where we now have a global food marketplace. Not that long ago, most of the food we would have eaten would have come from not that far from our homes. But now, with refrigerated transport and global supply chains, the food that we eat can come from all around the world and people want to know where their food comes from.
Last year I was in China, and people in China want to know where their food comes from. They really want to know. When you walk into a Chinese supermarket you can see that they have different sections for different countries, it is clearly labelled and you actually understand what you are buying and where it comes from. If you go to our supermarkets here in Australia it is a complete melange—a complete pot pourri. You have very little idea of where your food comes from. The labels are confusing and there is significant vagueness and also get-out clauses from the safe harbour provisions which currently exist in our country-of-origin food-labelling laws, and that creates confusion for consumers. And when there is confusion, people ignore it; when they do not understand what is on the front of their product they do not read it. When it is not clear, people do not worry about using it.
In the last couple of decades in Australia we have greatly improved the information about what is in our food, whether it is how much salt is in there, how much sugar is in there or how much energy is in our there; with pretty much everything you pick up these days you can see it has the same table with the same information across a variety of processed and non-processed foods. We need something similar in this area as well.
Because that information is consistent people can pick up a box of cereal or pick up a chocolate bar, look at that table and actually use it. I think the Blewett review, which came out a couple of years ago, found that that table of information was used increasingly by consumers because it was consistent across products and it was easy to understand.
We need something similar in country-of-origin food labelling because we do not have an easy-to-understand model at the moment. That is why both the industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, and the agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, have both said that we need a system that people can see easily and work out when they pick something up so that they know whether it is Australian or not. We are going to put something like a pie chart or a circle on labels—it sounds very technical, but it will be very easy to understand—and how much it is coloured in will tell you how much comes from this country. So, if it is all coloured in then it will be 100 per cent Australian grown and produced; if it is 50 per cent Australian grown then half the circle will be coloured in; and if there is no circle at all then there will be less than 50 per cent or no Australian produce. That is very easy to understand and it will give our farmers and our food manufacturers a clear, identifiable marketing tool for them to advertise to consumers that if they want to buy Australian and to support Australian farmers that they know what to look for in the supermarkets.
For those products that come imported, there will be labelling requirements about text that they will have to put on their products—where it came from or what market it was produced in. That text will have to be 30 to 50 per cent larger than the surrounding text to make sure that there is not a fine print issue.
So, the details are there. Some senators have said that we do not need any more inquiries, that we can just act tomorrow. Well, in fact, the government has already made it pretty clear what it wants to do. Obviously, we now need to define that in detail in law. We have to go through the proper processes of government, which include taking a submission to cabinet and consultation with the backbench. I presume there will also be a form of committee review in this place; I do not think that something like this would come in without some consideration by the Senate as well. So all those things must be done and they should be done properly. But it is a great win for those who have been calling for this for some time, that we finally have action. It is unfortunate that sometimes you need to have—I do not think it was a crisis in the last couple of weeks—an incident to pressure people to change. Sometimes that is the way it has been and it has probably always been thus.
I have not been involved myself, but I do want to pay tribute to people like Senator Siewert, Senator Sterle and Senator Williams, who sits next to me here, and Senator Madigan too. They have been working through these issues for years and, because they put good ideas on the table, when last week's incident occurred with frozen berries those were the ideas that were picked up and taken up by the government. So I congratulate them and I look forward to these new requirements coming into place.
Food-labelling laws in this country have decayed to such a point that Australians want action from their elected leaders. Australians have a right to know what food comes into this country and the circumstances under which it comes. They have a right to know if the product they are purchasing was imported from overseas or grown by Australian farmers. For too long, imported food products—and I say this deliberately—have been shoved down our throats. For far too long importers have been feeding off inadequate food-labelling laws to fool the consumers into purchasing their products.
Why is it that the government is determined to be an apologist for foreign imports at the expense of Australians' health—not to mention jobs? It is time the Australian government started putting Australian consumers, farmers and food processors before free trade agreements. Australian farmers pay fair wages, adhere to strict safety standards and persevere under extremely difficult circumstances, but they are being stymied by cheaper, substandard imports. Introducing better food labelling laws will give Australian farmers the level playing field they deserve to survive in a market swamped with cheaper-yet-inferior products.
When Australian consumers buy food which is grown and produced in Australia, it is better for the economy, better for the environment and better for the health of Australian families and individuals. It is the most sustainable option. I strongly believe most Australians recognize this and want to do the right thing by Australian farmers and food processors. The problem is that, when people encounter the amount of information on the back of food packaging, they often find they have bitten off more than they can chew. You should not need to be a Rhodes scholar to be able to work out where your food comes from.
Solid food labelling laws provide Australians with a choice: a choice between berries with hepatitis A or just vitamin C, a choice between meat with E. coli or simply meat with the standard three veg. This government must implement substantial country of origin food labelling legislation to protect public health, Australian farmers and jobs. The issue is not a laughing matter. Too much is at stake.
The motion is:
The need for the Abbott Government to Immediately implement Country of Origin food labelling legislation to protect public health and Australian farmers.
I acknowledge the good work of the Greens have done in bringing this important matter before this parliament not only today but for many years.
There is no doubt that a crisis has developed around the country of origin food labelling matter, and the recent infections of Australian people with hepatitis A from imported and frozen berries has given a sharper focus to this matter. I still cannot understand why Australians would want to buy berries from overseas countries when you could buy fresh berries from Tasmanian or other Australian state. Perhaps people were fooled into thinking that the berries which came in a package branded with the name of Nanna's were from Australia.
Nanna is a very Australian term, and I have to acknowledge that it is a brilliant piece of marketing. Just saying the name 'Nanna' for many people causes wonderful warm, secure and loving memories to come to mind. Such is the power of a word which reminds us of people in our lives who had such a positive impact on our lives. Whenever Nanna cooked for us or gave us anything, it was good, it was healthy and it was safe. No Australian would ever expect to get hep. A from any food that Nanna gave us. Now we have products from overseas that are labelled 'Nanna', but our overseas nanna has pooed in the food.
How did this situation develop? This government has allowed an imported food testing and safety system to develop which tests imports for pesticides and chemicals but fails to test for microbial or bacterial dangers such as hep. A et cetera. How did that happen? If you ask any primary producer or fisher and say, 'How do we help you compete against imported products?' they will all say, 'Make sure that imported product is subjected to the same food safety standard checks that Australian grown products have to go through.'
And this speaks to the core of the problem. If the consumer knows that it is an Australian product manufactured and packaged here under our industrial relations laws and food safety standards, they will buy it. At the moment we have all these overseas products pretending to be Australian, and successive governments have allowed this injustice to continue. So today, on behalf of Tasmanians, I say enough is enough. Let's take the first step and introduce clearer labelling for all the foods on our supermarket shelves.
In closing, I would highly recommend you look at Tasmanian fruit, vegetable and produce. It is the freshest, tastiest, cleanest food in the world, and I would know because I am a very proud Tasmanian.
Question agreed to.