Food Standards Amendment (Fish Labelling) Bill 2015 – 14 May 2015


Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory) (10:53): It is a pleasure to rise today to speak on Senator Xenophon's Food Standards Amendment (Fish Labelling) Bill 2015. I want to first acknowledge the clear passion and commitment on this issue. Senator Xenophon's views, of course, broadly are in line with many in the Australian community who want to know the origin of their food. We do have some of the finest produce and food products in the world. Australian farmers, fishers and all those in the food industry can be very proud of what we are able to do across the nation in supplying high-quality food both for other Australians and for many around the world.

We certainly punch above our weight when it comes to this issue. We are lucky to have rich waters in which we are able to harvest some of the finest seafood products in the world. From the prawns in the north to the toothfish in the south, we are able to produce seafood that is the envy of the world, and it is important that, when Australians go to buy these products, they know that they are getting the real deal. That is why the government agrees that country-of-origin food labelling laws are important and appreciates Senator Xenophon's efforts in this area—but we do not support this particular bill.

Australia is a world leader in the regulation of food standards. Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Australian government's Health and Agriculture portfolios, along with state and territory governments, work in strong collaboration to ensure a comprehensive food standards regime is in place. While acknowledging again that there is some work to be done in the area of labelling, and the government is doing that work, there are still robust measures in place under the code of labelling and other information standards that ensure Australian consumers are given vital information on their food. These standards include the labelling of ingredients, date-marking of packaged foods, directions for use and storage, nutritional information and other health related information. The standards also require the most obvious label: what a food actually is. With regard to fish labelling, while the code does not provide a prescribed name for seafood or seafood products, it does require fish products to be labelled with safe cooking instructions. We also have in Australia legislation that ensures accuracy in labelling and prohibits misleading or deceptive conduct or representations about items of food, particularly in relation to the origin of those foods.

It is important to note amongst all this that, as mentioned, the peak body is Food Standards Australia New Zealand, so we are not working on this in isolation. We have a number of agreements with New Zealand to ensure consistent standards of food. Understanding that relationship is crucial when looking at making any changes to the system. This is just a brief overview of the food standards we have in Australia, but it is clear that they are strong and robust. Given that, if this place is looking at changing some of the legislation around food labelling, we need to be sure that the changes are of the highest quality and do not adversely affect what is on the whole a good system.

The government, though, does acknowledge that there are changes that can be made to the food standards system, particularly in relation to country of origin. On this point, we agree with Senator Xenophon. We want to ensure consumers have access to clear, consistent and easy-to-understand food labelling, through changes that will allow for more informed choices. I think most Australians would agree this is a positive move. The country-of-origin labelling system at the moment includes requirements for packaged food to be labelled with a statement that identifies the country where the food was manufactured or packaged and to the effect that the food is constituted from ingredients imported into that country or from local and imported ingredients. There are some exceptions to these labelling laws that are largely to do with goods being sold at the point of origin or through a direct transaction with a purchaser. These exceptions are the key subject of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee report and the source of Senator Xenophon's bill.

For unpackaged fish, various meats, vegetables, nuts and other natural foods, there are requirements that the country of origin is identified or, if it is a product from a number of origins, that is made clear. Once again, there are mechanisms in place to prevent misleading or deceptive claims about the origin of a food product. With all this in mind, the government announced earlier this year that we are currently reviewing the country-of-origin labelling laws. While, as discussed, it is clear we have a world-class food standard system and our country-of-origin labelling regime is strong, it is not always easy for consumers to understand the system and recognise locally grown and processed food. To that end, the government is determined to look closely at this issue and to develop a system that makes it easy for consumers to identify the origin of their food.

The Prime Minister has formed a working group of ministers to progress this issue. The working group includes the Minister for Industry and Science, Ian Macfarlane; the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce; the Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb; the Minister for Small Business, Bruce Billson; and the Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash. The aim of the working group is to ensure that changes to food labelling give consumers information they need without imposing excessive costs on Australian industry and consistent with our international trade obligations.

The government will work with industry groups to ensure the changes are practical, but the intention is to implement both a symbol and words that can be clearly read and understood. We are also looking to utilise electronic platforms to provide more comprehensive product information to consumers, as only a limited amount of information can fit on food labels. This symbol and words will identify two key things: first, that the product was made or manufactured in Australia; and, second, what percentage—not specific percentages but increments—of the ingredients in the food or product was Australian grown. The government is currently working closely with the food sector and the agriculture industry to get the balance right and maximise information for consumers while also considering costs to Australian industry and businesses. Following the business consultations, the consumer research phase will begin, giving members of the community an opportunity to have their say. We also look forward to positive consultation with state and territory governments, whose cooperation will be required in order to implement a meaningful new labelling system.

Of course, there will be a reasonable phase-in period to give Australian producers time to adjust to the new food labelling requirements. The government is taking action now and hopes to pass legislation to give producers time to adjust and implement new country-of-origin labelling laws. It is important to note that the government is undertaking a thorough, methodical process in working towards a new country-of-origin labelling system. It involves full consultation with all levels of government, industry bodies and of course the public. The government will conduct market research, engage with stakeholders and look at ways the modern digital context can make a new country-of-origin system easier. That is how good policy and good legislation are developed. It takes time to get everyone on board and to get it right. Once we have the legislation right we need to make sure there is a transition phase, to allow businesses to get their labelling right without unnecessary costs. It is a process and it is one the government is committed to and is undertaking as we speak. Indeed, anyone who is interested in this issue can go to the government's industry website to get involved as the process goes on.

Once again, we recognise Senator Xenophon's work in this area, particularly on the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, which looked into this issue last year. I have no doubt of the good intentions behind this bill. On the substance of the issue and the importance of country-of-origin labelling we certainly agree. However, as outlined, food standards and regulations are very complex, and the government takes them very seriously. We do not want to make changes without full and proper examination of the issues, and without consultation with stakeholders and the public. For that reason, we are not supporting Senator Xenophon's bill. Ultimately, we cannot support this bill, because it does not adhere to good regulatory practice, nor does it acknowledge the complex jurisdictional arrangements at work in our food standards system. The bill does not take into account that whatever changes we make to food standards must be made through a consultative process with the states, territories and New Zealand. As I have discussed already, our world-class food standards regime relies on the cooperation of the states and territories and their relevant legislation, as well as agreements between Australia and New Zealand.

The bill as it stands directs FSANZ to develop new standards that require fish sold for immediate consumption to be labelled according to existing country-of-origin requirements. However, no jurisdiction can direct FSANZ to develop a standard; they can ask for a review of existing standards. Organisations, any group or individual can put forward an application for FSANZ to develop a new standard. Food standards cannot be legislated; they are regulations and need to go through proper process. This bill, if passed, will breach Australia's obligations to New Zealand under the Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of New Zealand concerning a Joint Food System. The bill intends to implement a standard made pursuant to the proposed section 16A, which would not be subject to part 3 of the FSANZ Act. This would have the effect of removing the participation of the ministerial council from the process of developing a standard, which is required by article 4(6) of the treaty. Therefore, the proposed bill appears to be inconsistent with the obligation contained in article 5(3) of the treaty, which obliges Australia not to establish food standards other than in accordance with the treaty. The treaty quite clearly states:

Australia shall not introduce any amendments to the Australian legislation establishing the Authority, or move government amendments to that legislation, without effective consultation with New Zealand during their development. Australia shall use its best endeavours, including reflection of New Zealand's position in any relevant papers for the Australian Commonwealth government, to reach agreement with New Zealand on these, and any other, amendments to the Australian legislation.

So while we recognise the intent of Senator Xenophon's bill, the government cannot support it, as it contradicts our agreement with New Zealand and does not adequately deal with the cross-jurisdictional nature of our food standards system.

While we oppose this bill, I reiterate that the government is determined to act on the issue of country-of-origin labelling. Australia is a lucky country: we have spectacular natural resources that we are lucky enough to be able to use to provide food and nourishment to the Australian people and to the world. We have a comprehensive system in place to ensure that our food remains of the highest standard, and it is important that Australians know that, when they buy something from the supermarket to feed their family, if it says it is Australian, it is.

 

The government, like Senator Xenophon, acknowledges that the system is not perfect and that there is a need for a new country-of-origin labelling system that is clear and easy to understand. We are undertaking a thorough, methodical process to ensure that this new system is good for consumers and does not add any unnecessary red tape. We are consulting with the states and territories, the industry and the public while ensuring we adhere to our food standards agreements with New Zealand. That is how we get good policy and that is what we are doing. While we do not support this bill, I acknowledge the good work being done in this area and look forward to seeing the end result of the government's process, so that we can introduce soon a new and robust food labelling system for the benefit of all Australians.