Ag set to drive CoOL review

27 Feb, 2015 03:00 AM
Now is the opportunity to do it, we’ve got the solution - why wait?

AGRICULTURAL leaders will play a central role in moves to finally enact unambiguous country of origin food labelling standards.

The recent Hepatitis A health scare linked to imported berries from China has forced the government to move on country of origin labelling (CoOL) changes to better inform consumer purchasing choices.

Yesterday, a government working group met to consider CoOL changes recommended in the parliamentary inquiry report tabled last year by a committee chaired by rural Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey.

The working group includes Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane; Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce; Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb; Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, and Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash.

A key outcome of the group will be developing potential changes that give consumers necessary information, without implementing excessive costs on industry.

Time for serious change

Senator Nash, who operates a mixed livestock and cropping operation at Young in NSW with her family, was buoyant about the CoOL moves.

“Around regional Australia, people tell me they want to buy Australian and support Australian farmers - but the labels are confusing,” she said.

“It is time for serious change (and) along with my ministerial colleagues ... I look forward to delivering it.

“Australian consumers deserve a simple, clear labelling system which makes it clear which country the produce is from.

“Australian farmers deserve to have their product clearly identified so that consumers can reward our clean, green produce with their choices in the supermarket.”

A clear need for reform

Mr Macfarlane has been a constant advocate for rural and regional Australia and farmers during his political career. Before entering federal parliament in 1998, he had an extensive career in agricultural representation, as head of the Queensland Grain Growers Association for seven years.

He said the government would also be working with industry groups to ensure any labelling changes are practical.

“But the intention is to implement both an image and words that can be clearly read and understood,” he said.

“Australian produce and food processing is of world class standard and the government is determined to introduce changes that will make it easier for consumers to seek out and buy Australian grown and processed food.

“The government will also consider its response to the recent House of Representatives Committee inquiry into country of origin food labelling.

“Consumers have made it clear that they want access to clearer and more useful information about the country of origin on food labels.

“The government will work closely with the food industry, agriculture industry and the States and Territories to get the balance right and maximise information for consumers while also considering costs to Australian industry and businesses.”

The people have spoken

Mr Joyce said the Australian people had asked the government to take action on the labelling issue.

“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 and they want it now,” he said.

“This is the issue that the Australian people are asking us.

“They want to know what's in the packet, but they also want to know what proportion of that is Australian.

“They want to make sure that they have the capacity to back Australian farmers.”

Mr Robb is a former executive director of the Cattle Council of Australia and of the National Farmers' Federation.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said people had been talking about CoOL for too long but “nothing much has changed”.

“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,” he said.

“I've tasked these two senior members of the Cabinet to come up with a joint submission (the Industry and Agriculture Ministers).

“It will be a whole-of-government piece of work, because it involves health and small business, as well as industry and agriculture.

“I want a submission to Cabinet by the end of March because we have to get on.”

A cost-effective solution

Mr Abbott said the government was going to consider labelling improvements in a way that’s also “as cost-effective as possible”.

“We don't want to add needlessly to the burdens of business but we also do want to ensure that consumers get the information that they need and the public is protected,” he said.

“So, we will do it in the most business-friendly way.”

Mr Abbott said while the Hepatitis A contamination had been a very serious problem in recent weeks, it also showed the nation’s food safety systems were working.

“I am very pleased that all of the berries from the overseas producers are being held at the border and all of the product which has been made with these potentially contaminated berries has been recalled,” he said.

“So, the system has worked and obviously if you've got any of the relevant product in your freezers, don't use them.”

A distraction from inaction

Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon welcomed the moves on labelling but said it was “just a desperate distraction from the Abbott government’s confused and indecisive response following the Hepatitis A berry contamination case”.

He criticised Mr Abbott’s initial response to the Hepatitis A outbreak but said Labor now “looks forward to finding a bipartisan solution on an issue that is vitally important to Australian consumers and producers”.

“Australians are entitled to know exactly where their food comes from and not get confused by misleading labelling on the packet - buying Australian is the best way to secure quality food,” he said.

“Consultation with consumers groups and food industry representatives is essential.”

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Baggoley said Victorian authorities had acted quickly and diligently in responding to the outbreak with 19 confirmed cases to date.

Get it done: Greens

The Australian Greens called on the Coalition to stop bickering and act on clearer food labelling.

“The country of origin food labelling Bill that is currently before Parliament is the result of years of consultation with the industry - it deserves this government’s support,” Greens leader Christine Milne said.

“This issue has cross-party support (and) the Liberals and Nationals have enough fights on their hands. Why are they pretending there is no bill and no obvious way forward on an initiative they claim to support, when they actually have the numbers to achieve it?

“The community has said enough is enough – we want clearer food labelling.

“Not only is it good for public health, it’s great for Australian farmers.

“The Nationals keep saying they’ll act on this, while the Liberals are getting in the way with their overblown and unfounded concern about the cost of new labels to businesses," she said.

“Now is the opportunity to do it, we’ve got the solution. Why wait for the Coalition to pull a proposal out of thin air at the end of March, when we could have a quality bill, endorsed by the industry, passed into law on March 2nd?”

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Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


27/02/2015 4:41:03 AM

god help us, Macfarlane with ties to the reserve bank, its obvious who he will be representing. Robb, a freemarket Genghis khan I think I remember someone calling him. U could not stuff this up more, Abbott. Get Barnaby and the greens to work it out, at least then we will have our interests represented and not someone else's.
angry australian
27/02/2015 8:13:51 AM

We have bureaucrats, FSANZ,AQIS,Customs, State Health,Primesafe Foodsafe etc,local health inspectors..... the list seems endless. We have laws, so if all these bureaucrats are incapable of stopping Australians from being poisoned by contaminated berries or crook tuna, either ditch them or the silly laws they have put in place to perpetuate their existence. CoOL will not stop people buying on price, a few years ago the fishing industry and Today Tonight did a story on Basa grown in the Mekong,does it stop Colesworth from selling it,no.Is it tested regularly, again no.So,why new laws?
angry australian
27/02/2015 10:17:41 AM

I also note a comment from the largely irrelevant wannabe Minister. Joel your mob presided over the same legislation and regs if the many Departments and bureaucrats charged with food safety choose to side with Colesworth and big transnational food producers and institute useless paper trails that mean nothing except defining legal liability for the ambulance chasers (who oddly are often big Labor supporters) rather than testing product for listeria, Hep A, botulism or chemical contaminants then all we have is butt covering. We currently have a heap of experts with no expertise!
John Hine
1/03/2015 6:34:38 AM

Two points: * people do buy on price, regardless of what they say in surveys. * why not simply say that all food (and other) imports have to have third party certification that they meet Australian standards. there are plenty of reputable international companies that do such certification. That way, the cost is all on the supplier, no new bureaucracy.


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