FEDERAL Parliamentary Secretary to the Agriculture Minister Richard Colbeck has warned against making unreasonable changes to food labelling laws that impose cost burdens on farmers and the food processing sector.
His call comes in the midst of a heightened public and political reaction to the recent Hepatitis A outbreak on imported frozen berries.
The Hepatitis A scare was forensically examined during Senate estimates hearings in Canberra this week and vigorously debated in the House of Representatives.
The Health Department is co-ordinating a national health response to the virus outbreak with 18 cases reported in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and Western Australia, by Tuesday.
Nanna's mixed berry and raspberry products have been epidemiologically linked with the outbreak and recalled, while other products were also recalled as a precautionary measure.
Critics should be cautious: Colbeck
At estimates hearings, Senator Colbeck said it was believed that a link existed between the imported berries and the Hepatitis A cases but it hadn’t been confirmed through testing.
“We do not have the test results yet, so that link has not been conclusively established - but there is a (strong) circumstantial link to them, if you like,” he said.
However, Senator Colbeck said critics needed to be cautious about pointing the finger and jumping to conclusions about the incident and food labelling or food safety standards.
He told the Senate hearing most of the focus was on China but a similar incident had occurred from frozen berries in Europe, “where their food systems and their food safety systems are pretty good”.
“This is an issue not just on imports but more broadly on food and ensuring the efficacy of our food safety systems,” he said.
“It could have happened here equally, had there been an occurrence of someone with hepatitis or some other E. coli-related disease in the supply chain.
“I think we need to be very cautious about saying, 'this is just about imports', because it could happen in the broader food supply.”
Speaking to Fairfax Media, Senator Colbeck said sensitivity was also needed about the cost structures that food processing in Australia is subject to.
He said no amount of changes to Australia’s food labelling laws would have changed any aspect of the Hepatitis A outbreak because the berry products were labelled 'Produce of China'.
“So it was quite clear where the product came from,” he said.
“The key thing is to be able to provide the best possible information to consumers in a way that doesn’t further disadvantage, on a cost basis, Australian food processors.
“The capacity to provide the best possible information, reasonably, to consumers, without imposing undue costs on the food processing sector is a really important area.
“And I think we need to be very careful about pointing fingers.”
Cautious response to inquiry
The Hepatitis A incident has prompted the Abbott government to implement findings from a recent parliamentary inquiry into food labelling which recommended clearer labels to help identify country of origin and where products are grown, processed and packaged.
Senator Colbeck said the government’s response to that inquiry was currently being considered along with recommendations from another inquiry into seafood labelling.
A submission on new Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) laws will be presented to federal cabinet within the next month by Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, it was announced yesterday.
But Senator Colbeck warned providing specific label details for all product ingredients became more difficult and more expensive, the more complex the product.
“If you have a variation of sources of the food supply that means a continuous change in packaging and that all layers expense into our food processing sector,” he said.
“And if we’re worried about cheap product coming in from overseas and providing competition to product that’s grown and processed here in Australia, if we increase the differential between the two, it only makes that competitive edge even greater for the imported product.
“So I’m cautious about imposing costs into the supply chain and the processing sector where you’re not actually going to achieve an effect.”
However, Senator Colbeck said it may be possible the government can find ways to provide more detailed labelling information for those who want it.
But he stressed the cost and additional cost imposition on Australian food processors “has to be considered”.
“Otherwise you just make the industry less competitive and you end up with more product coming in from overseas and the Australian product less competitive in the Australian market,” he said.
“That’s a threat to our food processors and our farmers and I don’t want to see that occur.”
Good food safety system
Senator Colbeck said he’d been frustrated by the lack of understanding “more broadly”, exhibited during the recent Hepatitis A outbreak, about how Australia’s food safety systems work.
“Fortunately we’ve got a very, very good food safety system in this country,” he said.
“We have to ensure the efficacy of our system is maintained because that’s one of the value propositions we have when we go into international markets.
“We have good food safety systems but it doesn’t mean we should be complacent, because what I’ve read about the testing that’s gone on with these berry products, this outbreak could have also happened here in Australia.”
Senator Colbeck said the two processing plants where the Chinese berries came from were certified under strict food safety standards set by the British Retail Consortium.
He said British supermarkets also used the BRC certification system which was very similar to the system used by Coles and Woolworths here in Australia.
Senator Colbeck said from reading statements from Patties Foods, he understood the company was conducting extensive testing in their processing plant and product is also tested by Chinese biosecurity agencies before it leaves the country.
He said product is also subject to a testing regime when on arrival in Australia both by Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and Patties, and at farm level.
“From the government’s perspective, there’s very little government imposition on the food sector,” he said.
“What we do here in Australia is say, ‘these are the rules you have to comply with to sell food in the Australian market’.
“There’s one set of food safety rules and everyone has to comply with it; it doesn’t matter whether it’s being provided form Australia or imported from overseas.
“To sell food in the Australian market you’re required to comply with Australia’s food safety laws; that’s a very simple proposition.”
100 per cent screening
A statement issued on Tuesday from Mr Joyce and Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash said a 100 per cent screening regime would now apply to frozen berries from factories in China, linked to the Australian Hepatitis A incident.
“Most people who contract Hepatitis A will recover with rest and fluids although it may cause severe illness in older people, those with chronic liver disease and those who are immunosuppressed,” the statement said.
“Hepatitis A is spread via food and water, including ice that is contaminated with faecal matter from infected people.
“Practicing good hand hygiene and avoiding food preparation while ill are the most important factors in preventing further cases.
“Additionally, and as part of the Department of Agriculture’s request, FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) will continue its broader and rigorous scientific assessment of the risk status of frozen berries from around the globe.
“The assessment is expected to take some weeks,” the statement said.
“The Department of Agriculture has also sought information on supply chains from all importers of frozen berries from China.
“The Chinese Government has carried out initial inspections of the packing facility implicated in the outbreak and has taken swabs for microbiological testing.”
Timeline on Hepatitis A response
The Senate estimates hearing was provided with a detailed chronology of events triggered after the Agriculture Department was first contacted late on Friday, February 13, via advice from OzFoodNet about several Hepatitis cases linked to the consumption of mixed berries.
FSANZ and other food, health and safety and food supply chain agencies or regulators were promptly engaged into action, along with State departments.
Department compliance division first assistant secretary Raelene Vivian outlined the chronology saying the company in question, Patties Foods, started recalling food products on Saturday, February 14.
She said on February 16 the Communicable Diseases Network also held a teleconference to discuss the multijurisdictional outbreak of the virus.
The Department spoke to Patties Foods about their supply chains and the company also confirmed it was withholding other food products from entering the market, she said.
“The Department also sent a cable seeking agricultural counsel assistance in engaging with the Chinese government,” Ms Vivian said.
“We also commenced drafting a formal letter to the Chinese agricultural area outlining concerns about Hep A contamination.
“On 19 February ... we received a cable from our post at about 11.42 our time advising that the authorities in China had commenced an investigation but that it may be delayed due to Chinese New Year.”