Speaking On The 2014 Food Labelling Report

It is my great pleasure to speak in relation to this report: A clearer message for consumers. Before I make some observations about the contents of the report, can I associate myself and Australian Labor with the observations made by the member for Gippsland about the disposition of the company Patties.


The member for Hunter and I had the opportunity of a meeting with the chief executive officer and other representatives from Patties, and we know that they are taking their response to the outbreak of hepatitis A, which was thought to be linked to frozen berries imported by their company, very seriously. In many respects, throughout the course of this crisis they were often well ahead of the government in their response to what needed to be done in the interest of public health and safety. On behalf of Australian Labor and the member for Hunter, I associate us with the observations of the member for Gippsland.

The member for Gippsland also made some comments in relation to recommendation 7 of the report and, in the course of that, enticed us to visit a hotel in his electorate. I am sure the hotel is excellent! But the effort to ensure recommendation 7 is implemented—that is the recommendation going to seafood labelling—is probably best directed inside the coalition's own party room, because we know that this is a matter that the National Party took to the last election in good faith and a matter that is very dearly held by National Party members. The only obstacle I can see to that recommendation, the National Party's policy pre the election and having the law changed in relation to that is inside the government's own party room. Yes, it is important that we talk about it in this place, but the focus and the direction of activity ought be by the government itself in delivering what was a National Party promise before the election.

The Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry's report on country-of-origin food labelling was tabled in October last year. I welcome the fact that the government has reintroduced the matter in the chamber today so that members have the opportunity to talk about it in more detail. Obviously, the issue has been bubbling away for a long time, and the recent outbreak of hepatitis A, as I have mentioned before, has kicked this issue along a bit. But it is important that we take both a logical and a rational approach to the issue of food labelling. It is not just what is on the packet that matters; it is the quality and the safety of the food inside that matters. Sticking a picture of Skippy on the front is not going to secure or guarantee the quality of the food inside. We have to have all the right resources and all the right links in place in the food supply chain to ensure that what we are serving up to our kids at home or what we are eating in a restaurant is of sufficient quality.

Australians are entitled to know that their food is safe. They should also be able to identify where there food is from. A slew of reports, dating back over a decade now, have pointed out the deficiencies in our food-labelling system. If the matter were easy to address, it probably would have been addressed already. There are some obstacles. But I think, as the member for Hunter pointed out, that, with sufficient goodwill and the right level of bipartisanship in the chamber, those obstacles can be cleared, which is in the public interest.

We know that there is keen public attention on food labelling at the moment—an opportunity to move. This is an opportunity to ensure we are putting in place the solutions to the right problems, not the wrong solution to an identified problem. We know that there are 27 people who, it is suspected, contracted hepatitis A from a supply of frozen berries in Australia. I am not convinced, I have to say, that the answer to preventing an outbreak such as this is to put a picture of a kangaroo or not put a picture of a kangaroo on the front of a packet of frozen berries. The berries in question were clearly labelled. The answer to problems such as this lies in the security of the food chain, at heart.

As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker Prentice, the Australian food regulatory system has proper separation between the establishment of the standards for food quality and control, which is regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand—they set the policy, they set the standards—and the monitoring and implementation of those standards, which is done by a range of other bodies. Importantly, in the area of imported goods, that is done by the Department of Agriculture's Quarantine and Inspection Service.

We have a risk rating for foods—for high-risk foods, 100 per cent of consignments are tested. Those which are classified as surveillance foods—lower-risk foods—have five per cent of the consignment tested. What has clearly been the case in the latest outbreak is that testing regime did not work. Apart from the labelling, attention needs to go to the testing regime and whether, in fact, a testing regime can be put in place which is going to be able to give Australian consumers the level of comfort and security they deserve.

It gets back to the point that it is what is inside the box that matters, not just what is on the label. Having appropriate levels of resources, having appropriate standards and being able to test for those standards through the monitoring authority should get at least an equal amount of public attention as have the labelling issues which are the subject of this report.

I am, and I am sure every member of the Labor opposition is, committed to promoting equality and the value of Australian goods. We are big supporters of the Buy Australian campaign and always have been. In that respect, we welcome the thrust of this report, which has at its heart the goal of enabling Australian consumers to identify where their goods are grown, where they are packaged and where the contents of the package come from. That is bipartisan. We have support on that.

I have to make this point: if this report is able to do one thing, it should be to put a focus on what we believe to be a cocktail of inconsistencies from those on the other side. On the one hand we are told that we should be economic nationalists when it comes to the goods we purchase at our supermarket, whether it is our wheat, our wool, our beef or our lamb; and I join with members on the other side, particularly our National Party friends, in saying we have the highest quality lamb and beef, and some of the best primary products, anywhere in the world. But I would also say they should have that same level of patriotism when it comes to the labour market. Regrettably, it is Buy Australia first when it comes to our primary products but not when it comes to our workers—because never have you seen more aggressive promoters of the 457 visa scheme. When it comes to Australian workers, regrettably, it is 'join the queue', and in that queue are a whole heap of people holding temporary working visas under the 457 scheme. We have seen evidence of that most recently in my own region. This is not good enough. If somebody is ready, willing and able to do the job, they should be there and they should be at the front of the queue.

I am willing to promote our quality but also, as the member for Hunter has pointed out recently, to do that we need to ensure we are not undermining the systems which ensure the quality. For the life of me, ripping $25 million out of a pesticide-monitoring service that was recently established to secure the quality of our food does not promote the quality supply chain of Australian-grown produce. It undermines the message of those opposite. It is what is in the packet that matters as much as what is on the front. We will support those opposite in their attempts to get a rational, logical system of food labelling, but our attention should not be drawn away from the importance of the quality of the food inside the package.