Wednesday, 19 September 2018
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Regional Services, Sport, Local Government and Decentralisation, Senator McKenzie. What steps are the Liberal-National government taking to respond to the recent contamination of strawberries?
On 12 September, Queensland Health and the Queensland Police Service announced three incidents of needles found in strawberries from one producer in Queensland. Subsequently, similar incidents have been reported in other states. This contamination appears to be deliberate sabotage and is primarily a criminal investigation for state police. The government commends the work of the Queensland police and other jurisdictions on this matter and urges all Australians to be vigilant for potential contaminants. Implicated products have been removed from supermarkets.
We as a nation have a strong record on food safety. These incidents are rare and isolated. It is very disappointing news, especially as there seems to be criminal intent. As the federal minister responsible for food policy, I've been receiving regular updates from Food Standards Australia New Zealand, our Chief Medical Officer and federal Department of Health officials, who have been working with affected jurisdictions. FSANZ coordinates recalls of food at the request of home jurisdictions and is convening regular meetings with state officials. Today we have announced $1 million to assist state and territories with this issue, to get more food safety experts on the ground, to fast-track recalls and to work with our state and territory governments to address it.
Prior to question time the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General announced tough measures to increase our legislative implications for those who are caught intentionally contaminating goods with the intent to cause public harm or anxiety. The offence currently carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. We are seeking to change that to 15 years. That legislation will be making its way to parliament tomorrow. Our government is responding strongly to this attack on food safety. It should be the right of every child, every parent and anyone in this country to be able to snack on fresh fruit without it being contaminated.
The Australian government continues to work cooperatively and in partnership with state governments, state law enforcement and FSANZ. The Commonwealth Department of Health is working with the Queensland department of health and Safe Food Production Queensland to ensure additional resources are made urgently available. I have spoken to the minister responsible and been in constant contact with industry, retailers, growers and the state ministry. FSANZ is also coordinating the product recalls and has established a government state and industry retailer taskforce. We're ready to work with Queensland Police and other state law enforcement officials, when asked, to support their immediate criminal investigations in addition to the new criminal penalties I spoke of in my previous answer. The Queensland Chief Health Officer has also been involved in communications with the Department of Health. They have advised that Queensland farms have been scanned and can assure us that farms across the state are now clear of contamination.
I'm sure everyone can sympathise with the over 260 strawberry farmers across this country—a half-billion dollar industry—who, as a result of this deliberate sabotage, are really feeling the effects. I think what we can all do is head out to our local supermarket, greengrocer or farmers' market and purchase some fresh strawberries, make sure that we back our growers and ensure that these deliberate food terrorists do not have a win. Remember that we can buy punnets for breakfast. There is one thing that you do need to do: you need to cut the fruit before you chomp on it. That is a message that I hope those opposite will work with the government on to get out—and with the state Labor government, who is keen to back the growers in that state. We know there are 800,000 punnets of strawberries packaged every day in this country. The risk has been incredibly small, and we need to back our growers. (Time expired)