A POLITICAL manoeuvre to try to make it illegal to use ‘brand Australia’ on beef produced from Australian live cattle exported and processed in overseas markets is targeting the bold China live export expansion plans of the nation’s richest businesswoman Gina Rinehart.
The Competition and Consumer Amendment (Safeguarding the Reputation of Australian Beef) Bill has been introduced by Nick Xenophon Team’s (NXT) lower house Mayo MP Rebekha Sharkie.
It calls for maximum fines of $1.1 million for Australian companies and corporate bodies and $220,000 for individuals, who break the law in Australia over the potential use in export markets of ‘brand Australia’, on beef produced through live cattle exports.
But the intent of Ms Sharkie’s private members bill - that she says is seeking to safeguard the Australian beef industry’s reputation as a producer of safe quality food - has been slammed by farm industry groups as “unworkable”.
The bill has been seconded by Queensland independent and live export supporter Bob Katter while Australian Meat Industry Council general manager Patrick Hutchinson also stood alongside the legislation’s backers at a media conference at Parliament House in Canberra, including NTX leader and SA Senator Nick Xenophon.
Ms Sharkie said the legislation would ensure Australian companies and individuals that marketed Australian meat from cattle processing overseas can’t call it Australian beef “and there will be penalties”.
“We believe Australian cattle when it is processed overseas, should not be called Australian beef – it’s as simple as that,” she said.
“It's about safeguarding our $22 billion dollar industry and 35,000 jobs - jobs in regional Australia and 100,000 associated jobs.
“We're really concerned that those safeguards are not there now - they need to be there or this industry could be in jeopardy.”
Senator Xenophon said brand Australia “has to mean something” and it can’t be Australian livestock being processed overseas and “flogged off” as ‘brand Australia’.
“It must be processed here under Australian conditions by Australian workers with the highest standards so that there isn’t any diminishing of ‘brand Australia’,” he said.
“I will be putting up a bill in the Senate to mirror the Lower House bill so that we’re working on this in tandem to try and get the maximum pressure on the government and all politicians to do the right thing by Australian jobs and industry.”
Ms Rinehart’s live export plans could see up to 300,000 head of cattle exported per year to China live, having recently purchased the Kidman cattle empire for about $400m with a Chinese partner.
In referring to recent news about Ms Rinehart’s moves to export cattle to China, Senator Xenophon said companies should not be able to get away with processing cattle overseas and calling it ‘Australian made’.
“Gina Rinehart usually gets what she wants but on this occasion she needs to be told very clearly that she can’t have the advantage of ‘brand Australia’ without there being processing done here in Australia, with Australian jobs and Australian communities around the country, being supported by the processing sector,” he said.
Mr Katter said Ms Rinehart’s recent statement on her business plans “clearly imply” that she was not only going to sell product in China as Australian but would also import beef back into Australia which would “close down meat works in our country”.
Mr Hutchinson said his sector supported live exports as a competitive process within Australia but wanted to ensure exported Australia cattle, sheep and goats that were also processed overseas don’t get the opportunity to use ‘brand Australia’ which was paid for in Australia by the “most expensive” regulatory burden in the world for processing, and the most expensive workforce and livestock in the world.
He said he didn’t want any companies to get a “free ride” overseas but Meat and Livestock Australia and others were always on the lookout for the misbranding of Australian product, in export markets.
“The key thing that we don’t support is the utilisation of the Australian brand being used overseas without our control,” he said.
He said Australia also had the highest level of food safety programs in the world, in regards to work safety and animal welfare.
“This is a labelling issue and we want to be making sure than when an Australian label is used, it’s representing our Australian standard,” he said.
“When Australian made is put on a sticker, on a box of beef overseas or sheep or goat, what it should be saying is that it’s clean, that it’s green, that’s it’s safe and that the welfare has been at its utmost.”
But the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC) CEO Simon Westaway said the livestock industry welcomed Ms Sharkie’s interest in upholding the brand value of Australian red meat- but her proposed reform was unworkable and failed to acknowledge the integrated nature of Australia’s red meat supply chains.
“Livestock producers are rightly very proud to have the meat derived from their stock marketed as ‘Australian’ in our overseas markets, regardless of whether it is exported as a boxed product, a whole carcase or shipped live,” Mr Westaway said.
“Australia produces a range of world-class farm commodities which are exported prior to processing due to the specific demand of the importer.
“Nonetheless, they are still Australian products and it is incorrect to suggest that they cannot or should not be marketed as such.”
Mr Westaway said any effort to deny our producers the right to have the beef from their cattle marketed as ‘Australian’ was “wrong”.
“When red meat from the live trade is marketed as ‘Australian’, we’re not just selling a commodity - we’re selling global best-practice animal welfare standards and the benefits of our significant investment in supply chain infrastructure and ongoing skills and training programs,” he said.
“Australia’s red meat sector is best served by strong live export and boxed sectors, which together maximise opportunities for producers with a full range of market options.
“Our livestock and red meat supply chain draw much of its long-term resilience from the integrated way in which stakeholders cooperate.
“With this in mind, all red meat industry stakeholders would agree that there needs to be more political attention paid to the removal of unnecessary regulatory costs and inefficiencies that challenge our productivity, curb innovation and compromise our competitiveness in overseas markets.”
Be wary of unintended consequences
Consolidated Pastoral Company CEO Troy Setter said details of the proposal were “fairly light at best” so it was a “challenge” to know exactly what the politicians were trying to achieve via the new bill.
Mr Setter said the politicians had to be careful because Australian produced many great export products like wheat, wool, cotton, crayfish and fish and, like meat, they were valued added in Australia and offshore, either through further processing or packaging.
But he said in reading the NXT media release it was unclear exactly how such other farm products, as well as meat that was further valued added off-shore, would be impacted by the legislative proposal.
“The release doesn’t mention a country that this is happening in – but I know with our own products that go offshore we have full transparency to build trust with all of our customers,” he said.
“We explain to them that our cattle are produced in Australia and some are processed in Australia as boxed or bone-in product and then others are sold into our two feedlots in Indonesia where they’re finished and processed in Indonesia.
“We give full supply chain transparency along the route to build trust with people rather than rely on legislation to build trust.
“Australia has a great reputation through a lot of hard work for a product, across multiple commodities and foods, that it’s clean and green and safe and of high quality.
“All products that are produced in Australia, whether they’re fully processed in Australia or part processed in Australia and part processed off-shore, we need to ensure that there’s good supply chain quality to ensure that our reputation is not lost.”
Mr Setter said he hadn’t seen it happening where a brand was put on an Australian product in an export market to say it was processed in Australia when it’s not.
He said fines of up to $1.1m proposed in the NXT bill also needed more details.
“Australia needs to be quite careful of legislation that it introduces in Australia that it tries to enact in another country,” he said in terms of potentially aiming Australian laws at export customers.
He said if the bill was threatening to introduce fines because Australian companies were trying to explain to their customers how product was being produced, that would reduce trust.
Ms Sharkie’s statement said last year 7.83 million head of cattle were processed in Australia and 1.12 million transported overseas as live export.