Senate debates

Monday, 10 September 2018


Imported Food Control Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

9:23 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

The Imported Food Control Amendment Bill 2017 makes changes to strengthen Australia's current risk based management approach of imported food to better protect the health of consumers. Labor supports the bill because it recognises that while Australia has a robust imported food safety system it can always be improved and strengthened, especially as Australia imports greater amounts from other countries through our bilateral trade agreements. In 2015-16 Australia imported $16 billion worth of food.

This bill amends, as I have said, the Imported Food Control Act 1992 to strengthen the current risk based management approach to imported food safety to better protect the health of consumers. The bill will require documentary evidence from importers to demonstrate that they have effective, internationally recognised food safety controls in place throughout their supply chains for the types of food where at-border testing alone is insufficient to provide assurance of food safety. It will broaden Australia's emergency powers to allow food to be held at the border where there is uncertainty about the safety of particular food and where the scientific approach to verify its safety is not established. It will provide additional powers to monitor and manage new and emerging risks. It will recognise an entire foreign country's food safety regulatory system where it is equivalent to Australia's food safety system, which will facilitate less intervention at the border for food products from that country. It will align the definition of 'food' with other Commonwealth legislation. It will establish differentiated enforcement provisions to establish a graduated approach to noncompliance. It will require all importers of food to be able to trace food one step forward and one step backwards. It will address minor technical issues with the current legislation to ensure efficient administration of the imported food legislation. The bill will also reduce the regulatory burden for compliant food importers.

Food-borne illnesses are serious and have major consequences when outbreaks occur. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 4.1 million episodes of food-borne gastrointestinal illness in Australia and 86 related deaths. The regulatory impact study states that in 2010 it was estimated that 4.1 million episodes of food illness in Australia were advised of. The recent food safety issues with imported foods, such as the outbreak of hepatitis A associated with imported frozen berries in 2015, exposed limitations in Australia's import food safety management system. The outbreak of hepatitis A occurred in 2015; unfortunately, it has taken the government almost two years to introduce measures to strengthen Australia's food safety management system. The RIS also states that the department proposed a package of legislative and non-legislative reforms to better align the imported food inspection program with contemporary and preventive risk-managed approaches. The policy objective was to strengthen the current system to provide more flexible and targeted ways to prevent and respond to food safety risks, to better protect the health of consumers by reducing the regulatory burden for compliant food importers and to uphold our international obligations.

The economic costs of food-borne illnesses in Australia are substantial, with doctor visits, treatments and days off work reported to cost $1.2 billion per year. The public expect that, when food-borne illnesses occur, there are systems in place to deal with the suspected source as soon as possible, and this includes possibly contaminated imported food. The outbreak, as I mentioned before, of hepatitis A in 2015 that was linked to imported frozen berries exposed limitations in the current imported food system. Back then, it was under the Abbott-Truss government, but now the former Minister for Agriculture, true to form, has taken aim at the importing country and turned his attention to country-of-origin labelling rather than investigating if there is a way of strengthening Australia's imported food regulatory system. On 18 February 2015 Mr Joyce said that he believed there should be clear country-of-origin labelling on all imported foods so that consumers knew exactly where the products were coming from. He said there was a review currently underway and he would be pushing for proper labelling to be implemented 'as quickly as possible'. Minister Joyce said:

We should have proper country of origin labelling. Maybe other countries are not as concerned about food safety as we are.

Mr Joyce urged Australians to seek out locally made products:

Buy Australian and save yourself a pain in the gut.

Minister Joyce should have checked his facts because the packages relating to the suspected contaminated frozen berries were clearly labelled with the country of origin. Minister Joyce went further, claiming that labels were needed that clearly identify 'unambiguously, as soon as you pick up a package, whether it is from our country with our strong ... sanitary requirements'. He further said, 'that is making sure that faecal contamination, which is a very polite word for poo, is not anywhere near your food—not going to be put in your mouth'. This was an outrageous statement by the minister.

Sadly, rather than pushing to strengthen our imported food regulatory systems back in 2015, Minister Joyce chose to criticise our trading partners. Amendments to this bill should have been made in 2015. In regard to the new country-of-origin labelling, recent media articles are claiming that small Australian agrifood businesses such as Brookfarm Muesli in Byron Bay will have to redesign their packaging, with Brookfarm Muesli estimating it will cost $500,000 to redesign their 70 different packages. Further, health experts from Monash University are claiming that the new labels were not giving consumers the information they really wanted—that it doesn't actually tell us where our food comes from. We really don't need Monash University to tell us that, because anyone who spends any time in supermarkets would know that. What it does tell us is that food is from Australia, and then it leaves you to guess where the rest of the ingredients are from, unless the product is totally from another country, in which case it is labelled as coming from that country. This was the case with the suspected contaminated berries. So, while the new country-of-origin labelling does nothing to strengthen Australia's imported food system, the amendments to this bill will do that.

The Labor Party will be supporting this bill, as we see it as strengthening the current risk based management approach of imported food safety to better protect the health of consumers.

9:33 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Imports Food Control Amendment Bill 2017. I ask: what do you think Australia does best? Of course, my answer is grow food. We are brilliant at growing food and people all around the world want to eat our food. We have FSANZ and we have a high level of standards so we know that we can eat Australian food with total confidence. Thankfully, the rest of the world knows that as well. That's why they are so keen to buy our lamb, mutton, beef and many other products. We do allow a lot of imported food into Australia. I remember as a pig farmer when the Hawke government, in the late 1980s, allowed the importing of pig meat into Australia. I wasn't keen on the idea one bit. We had plenty of pig meat here. The market was going along well but under a trade agreement the then Labor government, perhaps, did not have a lot of consideration for the Australian pork industry. Although, Mr Keating at the time had a fair investment in the pig industry in the Hunter Valley. My piggery was not as successful as his, unfortunately.

There was the Nanna's berries contamination situation in 2015 where hepatitis A spread to far too many people. It caused a fair scandal. I disagree with Senator Brown; I think the country-of-origin labelling is a great thing. I have pushed for it for some 25 years so that people can identify where they're buying their food from. Is it Australian, is it imported or is it a blend? I think the more knowledge you can give the consumer about what they are about to eat, where the food comes from, is a very good thing.

The Senate inquiry, with the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee, in the Northern Territory identified where fish is from—whether it is the local fish-and-chip shop, the restaurants or whatever—given so much fish is imported into Australia and so much can be misleading about imported fish. I remember that Australis Barramundi, which you would think would be Australian barramundi, was actually farmed fish from Vietnam. It can be very misleading. This bill tightens up the regulations.

Even just last week we had stories on the 7.30 program about contaminated and adulterated honey being brought into Australia. This does go on. People cheat the system. I remember back in 2014 when I reported a company to the ACCC, they had a product called Victoria Honey. You wouldn't blame people who think, 'What is Victoria honey? It is honey from the honey bee in Victoria.' No, it was corn syrup from Turkey, which is a big difference. Then the ACCC banned the product. The company was fined $30,600, which was nowhere near enough, and the product was removed from the shelf. Amazingly, that company sold 186,000 one-kilo packages of that so-called Victoria Honey—that is, 186 tonnes. To be fined $30,000 was a slap with a feather. They probably made a pretty handy profit out of the whole deal and cheated the Australian consumer. People do cheat with the adulterated honey and other products that come to this country. We have our strict regulations here, which is great, because, as I said, everyone can eat Australian food with total confidence knowing that it's healthy and it's good for you.

We asked a few questions about this bill. Why is this bill needed, for example? Whilst Australia has a robust food safety system, food-borne illness remains a serious and costly public health and safety issue for the government and industry. The consequence of food safety incidents are broad, including economic loss and reduced consumer confidence as well as serious risks to human health. Consumers rely on existing food regulation and market forces to ensure imported food is safe for human consumption. Recent food safety issues with imported food, such as the Australian outbreak of hepatitis A linked to the imported frozen berries in 2015, as I mentioned, exposed limitations with the current imported food regulatory system. Management of imported food safety risks is challenged by increasing globalisation of food supply and increasingly complex supplier chains. Border testing alone is no longer sufficient to provide assurance of a food's safety, particularly for ready-to-eat and minimally processed foods. Assurance of food safety must be drawn from preventative controls throughout the supply chain.

The bill provides a range of practical measures designed to strengthen and address limitations with the current imported food regulatory systems by increasing importers' accountability for food safety, that's most important; increasing importer sourcing of safe food; improving the ability to monitor and manage new and emerging food safety risks; and improving food safety incidence response.

The bill contains provisions mandating documentary evidence that importers have effective, internationally recognised food safety controls in place throughout the supply chains for the types of food where at-border testing alone is insufficient to provide assurance of food safety—in other words, they are to do their job better overseas, or they'll face the music here; broadening Australia's emergency powers to allow food to be held at the border where there is uncertainty about the safety of a particular food and where the scientific approach to verify its safety is not yet established; providing additional powers to monitor and manage new and emerging risk; recognising a foreign country's food safety regulatory system, where there is equivalence with Australian food safety systems, to facilitate and reduce intervention at the border for food products from that country; and aligning the definition of 'food' with Commonwealth legislation.

The bill is compatible with human rights, as it promotes the protection of human rights, and, to the extent it may limit human rights, those limitations are reasonable, necessary and proportionate. Targeted stakeholder and formal public consultation has been ongoing in the development of the bill and broader policy reforms. Consultation has been undertaken with imported food industry representatives, state and territory food authorities, trading partners and relevant Commonwealth agencies, including the Department of Health and Food Standards Australia New Zealand. It was most important that we had this consultation period to negotiate things.

Public consultation with industry and trading partners was facilitated through the imported food regulation impact statement, or RIS, which assessed the regulatory costs and benefits of the reforms on food importers. Consultation was undertaken with food importers on the development of the bill and on the operational details of the legislative changes, and with supply chain companies, including food safety management schemes, certifying bodies, customs brokers, freight associations and food retailers. The exposure draft of the amendment bill was released on 20 March 2017, for 45 days, concluding on 4 May 2017. A World Trade Organization sanitary and phytosanitary agreement notification was also made at this time, inviting comment from trading partners. Eight industry and three trading partner submissions were received. All indicated broad support for the draft legislation's amendments. No restraint-of-trade issues were raised by industry and trading partners.

What are the negative impacts of this bill if passed? The negative impacts of this bill if passed are few. The regulatory burden is an estimated net cost across all businesses importing food of $0.216 million per annum. Some businesses that import the types of food that are ready to eat and minimally processed will be required to demonstrate that the food has been subject to preventative controls through the supply chain to ensure food safety outcomes. Once or twice a year, when there is a suspicion that a food may pose a hazard to human health but the scientific approach has not yet been established to verify this, that food can be held until the scientific approach is established. Food can only be held until a scientific approach is established and only where there is a reasonable suspicion that the food poses a serious risk to human health. This is the whole objective of this bill. It's about preventing illness, sickness and looking after people as far as their health goes. I've travelled to Thailand many times, mainly for Anzac Day, and, yes, I've caught the bug over there. I've seen other people get food poisoning. It was while I was in Thailand that I learnt that food poisoning can actually kill you. People have died from food poisoning. It is a serious thing. So this bill is here to protect the health of Australians. As I said, we can eat Australian food with total confidence. We've been doing that for a few hundred years—or longer, for our Indigenous people, with native animals et cetera.

But what is the impact of this bill on small businesses? That is a good question. Australian small businesses will benefit from this bill through better management of food safety. Australian businesses that sell food that has been imported into Australia will have greater confidence in the safety of that food. For the majority of the small businesses that import food into Australia there will be very few changes. Businesses importing food from foreign countries where we have an equivalence recognition in place will benefit from reduced intervention at the border, reducing their costs. Around 2.5 per cent of importers will need to ensure that they or their overseas suppliers have food safety management certificates for the food they import. The biggest expense most small businesses face is labour, so having safer food in Australia and reducing foodborne illness will benefit small businesses through better staff productivity and reduced costs associated with food safety recalls.

Another part of this bill is that it enables more targeted intervention at the border. This means we will be able to focus our efforts where they are needed, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach. The bill will enable the investigation of new and emerging risks and proactive regulation, and it will ensure we are able to respond to the changing global food marketplace. Changes to how we are able to define food will result in a more refined approach, ensuring that intervention is limited to the food that requires it. This means that importers who are doing the right thing are less likely to be caught in the net when there is a problem. This bill will enable a graduated response to noncompliance through the introduction of a graduated enforcement scheme. Currently, the act includes a number of offences with an appropriately significant maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment, which reflects the potentially serious consequences of a food safety incident. The graduated enforcement scheme will introduce a range of lower penalties that will enable illegal activity to be penalised before a significant event occurs. This more flexible, graduated scheme is more responsive to illegal activity and helps to ensure importers comply with the law, which, of course, is most important.

The amendments introduce the ability of Australia to enter into an agreement with another country to reduce at-border intervention where there has been an equivalent assessment of the foreign country's food safety regulatory system. In other words, if the country that's producing the food raises its standard to something like FSANZ, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, that we have here, then they won't have so much trouble getting it in here and the system is deemed equivalent to Australia's—that's the most important thing. This amendment enables Australia and another country to assess each other's food safety systems, including ongoing monitoring, and, where both systems are assessed as equivalent, it will enable a reduced rate of intervention at the border. The amendments enable agreements with foreign countries to be as flexible as possible, ensuring Australia is able to continue to protect against foods that are unsafe. This is the main issue here: protecting our people from foods that are unsafe. The agreements can recognise all foods coming in from another country, recognise some foods coming while specifically excluding certain foods, or only recognise specific foods while excluding all other foods. The rate of intervention at the border can be set to reflect the risk that is posed. Importers sourcing food from countries with the recognition agreement may experience reduced border intervention and associated cost to business.

How will the amendments make a difference if an incident similar to the one in 2015 linked to frozen berries happens? That's a good question. The hepatitis A outbreak in 2015 linked to imported frozen berries highlighted some limitations of the current system. The bill will address those limitations through a range of measures that together will reduce the likelihood of a similar event occurring in the future and ensure we are able to respond quickly if it does occur. Obviously, it is cost prohibitive to test every food at the border, and from time to time a new issue will present itself that can't be foreseen. However, this bill will introduce a range of measures that, working together, will reduce those risks. As I said, in Australia we can eat our food with total confidence, and we've got to make sure that Australian people can do the same with what we import from overseas.

Another question that may be asked is: how will the amendments make a difference to concerns similar to those about adulterated honey? I have mentioned this. Corn syrup and sugar cane syrup have been falsified as or blended with honey and brought in from overseas in huge amounts—a lot of it from China, it has just recently been discovered. It is then mixed with honey here, and this contaminated, adulterated honey is put on the shelves and sold as honey. You're not buying the real McCoy. I really think we need to increase our fines and punishment here, as I said before.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Sterle, you'd be familiar with the work done by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee. We've seen people import false product and cheat the Australian consumer, and the punishment is just minuscule compared to the money they've made out of the product. The amendments in this bill go a great way to solving a lot of these problems. Of course, the whole answer is—and I'm biased—to buy Australian food wherever you can. We've now got food labelling. Senator Brown is perhaps not overly keen about the country-of-origin labelling system. I pursued that years ago in the pig industry, when we allowed the importing of meat from Canada, Denmark and such places. People were hoodwinked by false branding which said 'manufactured in Australia', when in actual fact it was processed in Australian from imported pig meat. People thought they were buying Australian-grown meat, but they weren't.

So this bill, through these amendments, will tighten immensely the rules on importing food and make sure that it's processed cleanly and in a healthy fashion—properly, with contaminants removed and also the risk of illness from food poisoning removed. Hence it will be a lot safer for our consumers, and that's the whole thing. But remember that the best way to eat good food is to buy Australian.

Debate interrupted.