February 27, 2015
At least 18 people have been infected with hepatitis A following an outbreak caused by contaminated imported frozen berries. Photo: Getty Images
The Abbott government says it will act on country of origin labelling in the wake of the hepatitis A outbreak from frozen berries imported from China.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has asked Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to prepare a submission for cabinet by the end of March.
“For too long, people have been talking about country of origin labelling. And nothing much has changed,” Mr Abbott said.
“Plainly, whenever we have a problem with imported food in particular, people want to know more about where their food, where their products are coming from.”
The announcement comes a little over a week after Mr Abbott appeared to reject a complete overhaul of food labelling and testing.
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
“The last thing I want to do is put a whole lot of additional requirements on business that will make their life very, very difficult and which will raise unreasonably prices to consumers,” he told the ABC.
Thursday’s move comes after consumer groups and farmers renewed calls for tougher country of origin labelling rules after 18 people tested positive for hepatitis A after eating frozen Patties berries that were believe to be contaminated.
Mr Macfarlane said that current labels were confusing and left consumers uncertain about where their food came from.
He said changes would likely result in new graphics on food labels, such as a pie chart or symbols indicating what proportion of a product was from Australia.
Currently, companies can display labels stating a product is made from local and imported ingredients without giving a breakdown of how much of the product was grown in Australia.
Consumers groups have also complained that labels such as “made in Australia” are confusing as they give the impression a product was grown in Australia when that might not be the case.
“This matter is urgent. We are giving it our absolute priority. It can be fixed and it will be fixed,” Mr Joyce said.
He warned there would be costs associated with making changes.
“This is a discussion that the Australian people have asked us to have. It’s something they’ve demanded,” Mr Joyce said.
“It’s quite clear what they want. They want something that is simple, they want something that is diagrammatic, they want something that delivers proportionality and they want something that’s compulsory.”
Mr Joyce claimed the Prime Minister had always supported clearer labels.
“This issue of labelling, I can assure you, the Prime Minister has been fully aware of. We went to the election talking to stronger country of origin labelling. So we’re delivering on a commitment that we took to the election.”
Mr Joyce said consumers liked the “inherent protection” that came from purchasing a product they knew contained Australian-grown ingredients.
He said rather than labels that simply stated a product contained a mix of local and imported ingredients, labels should employ a tiered system indicating the percentage of Australian product: 100 per cent, 80 per cent, 50 per cent and so on.
The Greens have long called for tougher labelling laws and had put their own bill to the Parliament.
It proposed simpler country of origin labels that put foods into one of three categories.
Greens Leader Christine Milne said on Thursday she was pleased the Prime Minister was moving to address the problem.
“I don’t think we need any more talk. We have had endless consultation. The solutions are there,” Senator Milne said.
“It is very clear that we just need to relabel products and to say this is produce of Australia, this is manufactured in Australia or this is packaged in Australia.”
Senator Milne said it should be easy to get clear food labelling in Australia.
“The objection to date has been from the big multinational food corporations,” she said.
“Every time we get to this point…in they come and give big donations to the Liberal and Labor Party and as a result there are always technical issues which kill better country of origin labelling.”