Government responds to food safety scandal

By Leith van Onselen

The Patties frozen berry scandal, which has seen at least 13 Australians infected with hepatitis A, along with growing disquiet from local growers and consumer groups over lax food labeling and safety laws, has seemingly spurred the Government into action, with Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, announcing a broad review of food safety and tougher labeling laws. From The Australian:

Mr Joyce last night told The Australian that the potential scale of the crisis, which could see ­hundreds stricken, meant the ­government had a duty to respond with a meaningful review of the “overall” food safety system…

Grower and consumer groups have demanded immediate action to ensure that frozen berries — and other imported fruit and vegetables — are microbiologically tested for organisms linked to human diseases…

“It implores you to have a strong, decisive look at it and if you want to call it a review, that’s what it is. The first rule (of government) is do no harm”, [Joyce said].

Prime Minister Abbott, however, is playing the review down. Yesterday he rejected a crackdown on food testing and labeling, instead claiming that it was the responsibility of business “not to poison their customers”:

“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 will raise unreasonably prices to consumers because everything we do in this area has a cost.”

And he continues to stand by this position, vowing not to allow any changes that would ­increase the cost of imported goods.

As I noted yesterday, Australia’s lax country-of-origin labeling laws mean that Australians have no way of knowing where their imported food is sourced from, robbing consumers of making an informed choice.

Standards on imported food are also arguably far too weak, posing not just safety risks for consumers, but placing local producers – who are required to abide by stricter standards – at a competitive disadvantage.

As argued yesterday by Victorian Liberal MP, Sharman Stone, in relation to the berry scandal:

“This is a wake-up call for Australia. This involves fecal contamination from water or food grown in contaminated soil and water. Meanwhile Australian growers have to adhere to scrupulous regulations and inspections. We have an incredible double standard.”

Barnaby Joyce is right to call for a comprehensive review of food standards and labeling before more Australians get sick, and before more local food producers are unfairly driven out of business. Tony Abbott should also jump on board, the weight of public opinion is against him. Perhaps he should consider the George Costanza policy of doing the opposite of every thought he has.

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Comments

  1. Geez, they’d better stop doing the right thing or people might actually stop detesting them.

    Imbeciles.

    • The ironic part is that this is such an easy vote winner for Abbott and he’s not taking it.

      Stupid stupid man.

      The two companies that might be effected by this are Woolworths and Coles, which have (from rusty memory) about 80% market share. I expect them to flex their political power by making this quietly go away in a couple of days, like the traffic light food labelling did.

  2. Wow, Abbott is incredibly deaf and stupid. Just wow, he’s a terrible politician. How did this fool survive the spill?

    • [email protected]

      The tin eared dill ignores the compliance regime foisted on local companies placing them at a
      disadvantage. O/S suppliers need to face the same.

      “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 will raise unreasonably prices to consumers because everything we do in this area has a cost.”

      Local business people would be apoplectic at that statement.

      • Yet local food producers get my dollars, even if it costs more to get real nutritious food. Who knows I might even be eating marshy’s avos.

      • [email protected]

        Good on you
        same same

      • I’m not in Australia, do packages like these berries indicate anything about China? how do you know where your food comes from?

      • I’m not in Australia, do packages like these berries indicate anything about China?

        Usually something like “packaged in Australia from local and imported produce”.

        how do you know where your food comes from?

        You don’t. That’s what everyone is complaining about.

        It’s always a bit odd to see the cognitive dissonance of people who want consumers to “take responsibility” for making educated decisions, then arguing against disclosure of the information consumers need to do that.

    • That he wasn’t able to instantly recognize the super sensitivity to this issue in the electorate indicates that he has very very very questionable political judgement.

      For someone who has been a politician for so long how does he manage to be so clueless?

      Howard wouldn’t have said something so stupid as: responsibility of business “not to poison their customers”. Howard would have understood that it was a sensitive issue, understood that government has a central role in regulating this area in the community interest, and said the right things at the right time…

      Tony is so far removed from John Howard it is not funny.

      • What actually Abbott says is that everyone who is a victim of corporate negligence can sue the company for damages, if the not poisoning with contaminated food is only a responsability of the company. Having in mind that corporations have the best paid lawers and no ordinary person can have a chance against them, it means that Abbott says : F**& off all of you, I do not care about how many of you can die, I only care how much money my business friends can make. “

  3. Shock, I actually agree with Abbott’s first response to resist additional regulation here:

    – Australia seems to have the urge to regulate everything, often only meant to thinly disguise market protection. Regulation is only one of the possible solutions, in many cases it should be the least preferred.

    – The country of origin is in this case not the real concern. When it comes to Food Safety the product should adhere to certain standards regardless of origin. It would be wrong to dismiss food simply because it is from China.

    That said:

    – if local growers are at a disadvantage because they have to jump through many, many hoops then the playing field should be leveled.

    – Surely there are frequent checks of food quality by an independent institution? Is there an Australian equivalent to the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority?

    The task of the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority is to protect human and animal health. It monitors food and consumer products to safeguard public health and animal health and welfare. The Authority controls the whole production chain, from raw materials and processing aids to end products and consumption.

    (http://www.vwa.nl/english/about-the-netherlands-food-and-consumer-product-safety-authority)

    • Couldn’t agree less. If it’s from China, I want to know, and I want seafood sorted out as well. Consumers appear to be extremely consistent on the issue of labelling, take GM as an example.

    • The country of origin is in this case not the real concern.

      No, it is the real concern. I never want to eat anything grown in a country with astronomic levels of pollution, and where untreated human faeces are used as a fertilizer. 😡

      It would be wrong to dismiss food simply because it is from China.

      Another disastrous Captain’s Call. :roll:

      • If that food has been tested and proven to be ok, origin is not relevant. Not all farmers in China use the kind of backyard, backward approaches you mention.

        I suspect this is one of those situations where halfarsedness is going to be “solved” by bringing in over the top regulations and bureaucracy. Australia seems incapable of thinking in grey when simplistic black and white is so much easier to sell/fathom.

      • Not so much the labeling, all products in Europe have a “made in” label as well, although I’m not sure if that is mandated.

        However, the debate itself makes me cringe with all parties making lots of noise about “China” while I believe that is a very simplistic approach to this issue. It would be a waste to shut off a market like China, for multiple reasons, when not necessary.

        I think someone f-ed up and judging by previous responses to similar situations I’m expecting draconian regulations to be brought in to appear “though” rather than admitting someone wasn’t doing their work and using that to improve practices. This situation could have been prevented if imported batches are regularly checked and the source of food is monitored.

        I find Abbott’s initial response refreshing in its rejection of regulation as you don’t see that very often in response to a crisis/issue.
        Don’t get me wrong though, it should be coupled to a proper review of current practices and an assessment of best solutions with the aim of solving the issue with minimal regulations.

        Over the top examples: labeling of all power leads in offices, over the top unsuitable examinations of doctors coming into the country, prohibiting simple electrical work, etc… All brought in because someone was being a dumb arse and regulation was seen as the only suitable response.

        Oz has made me allergic to anything that’s resembling over-regulation.

      • R2M: “Never want to eat anything grown in a country where …… and untreated human faeces are used as a fertiliser”.

        Hmmm…..presently their is a fertilizer product called “dynamic lifter” which is composed of human feaces; its used in most backyard garden food trees, but advises not to be used on vegetables etc unless washed appropriately. “Dynamic Lifter “may have accidentally been used by the Chinese on their berry bushes for faster growth and entered the transportation process without being picked up.

      • Anon, that used to be the standard argument in the water industry, but it has proven to be wrong because unless you test a very high proportion of a batch, the residual risk is still way too high.

        The only acceptable solution for food products has been sampling, PLUS a requirement of basic standards along the food chain. Both of these are required to ensure adequate protection of the public, and where those standards are not adhered to, the public has the right to know.

    • A well informed, wealthy Chinese consumer will only eat imported food. I would never knowingly eat food from China myself. It’s not just microbiological contamination, it’s also heavy metal and other chemical contamination.

      No-one is testing for this as food is brought into the country and the lack of labelling leaves us utterly exposed as consumers. I never imagined that the frozen berries I eat could have come from China before this.

      It’s not just food that Australia is doing this with. The US has had many incidents of imported toys found to be painted with highly toxic lead paint. Is the same thing happening here? Probably, but no-one is looking.

      Compare this with something like the ban on isofix child seats where a demonstrably safer overseas product is banned to protect local car and child seat manufacturers. They finally caved and allowed isofix here, but with the caveat that they needed a top-tether, thus preventing import of overseas seats (and incidentally preventing extended rear-facing child seats from existing – you can’t get a 3 year old in and out of a seat rear-facing past a top-tether). Why do we have random import restrictions protecting this industry, but expose our food producers to the full brunt of laissez-faire capitalism?

      • No-one is testing for this as food is brought into the country

        This is the real problem. Why test domestic food but not imported food (if that is the case)? Start doing this and you can actually work with producers to help them clean up their act.

      • “Why test domestic food but not imported food (if that is the case)?”

        What is this domestic food testing that you keep talking about?

        I’m sure many (most?) companies do their own in-house testing but it seems like you’re imaging some massive government organisation that tests all local food products.

        And I have no idea how that organisation (if it were to be created) would be less nanny-statist than simply requiring the origin of ingredients to be labelled.

      • Hence the “(if that is the case?)”.

        I think it is simply amazing that this is apparently not happening. How can you be serious about Food Safety if you don’t test your food?

        To leave this up to businesses without an additional level of supervision is, quite frankly, naive beyond comprehension.

        My apologies for expecting at least a minimum level of competence in this regard.

        It’s not something unheard of, other countries have been doing this for ages (based on a risk assessment approach), nothing nanny state about that. See here:
        http://www.vwa.nl/english/about-the-netherlands-food-and-consumer-product-safety-authority

        P.S. The reason I assumed testing was done domestically is based on the complaints from local producers about the regulation they have to deal with.

    • Regulation is what makes a progressive, successful economy, lack of regulation is what makes it Liberia.

      Libertarians are the most retarded people on the planet – absolutely no debate on that.

    • It doesn’t require additional ‘red tape’ Companies that refuse to investigate where their ingredient comes from will simply put a sign on their packaging:

      “The manufacturer of this product neither know or care where the ingredients come from, eat at your own risk”

      Then it’s up to the consumer to decide whether they want Hep A.

      • I agree with the sentiment but my suggestion would be to have a (better?) independent institution test and monitor all products for consumption in Australia.

      • I agree with the sentiment but my suggestion would be to have a (better?) independent institution test and monitor all products for consumption in Australia.

        How does this represent *less* regulation and “government” than requiring vendors to properly label their products ?

      • It may come down to a difference in definition. With “regulation” I mean the type that overly burdens businesses and citizens with ineffective administrative requirements.

        When I talk about an independent organisation doing the checks it fits with my opinion that Government has a role as referee and enabler of a free market. By having a independent organisation (quango/government/outsourced), rather than individual businesses, take responsibility for the checks you prevent business getting bogged down in administration and costs.

        I decided to do some digging to see what current arrangements are in Oz:

        Food Standards Australia New Zealand

        We develop and administer the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, which lists requirements for foods such as additives, food safety, labelling and GM foods.

        http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/Pages/default.aspx

        Enforcement

        The Australian Government Department of Agriculture is responsible for the inspection and sampling of imported food.

        http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/about/foodenforcementcontacts/Pages/default.aspx

        As I see it (with limited research) there is already regulation in place, it may just not have been implemented correctly (similar to FIRB perhaps?). This is why I act up whenever I see a discussion like this which in Oz seems to often go the way of asking for more regulation when the reality is that lack of quality implementation is to blame.
        Perhaps the Australian Government Department of Agriculture has not done its job properly?

        I’m getting the feeling that my comments are being judged as coming from a right wing libertarian. Far from it, I am just of the opinion that there are many solutions to a problem and that the best ones are often the ones that do not rely on bringing in more administrative burden. Perhaps this is a better definition of my arguments?

        @Dr Smithy – labels as a solution is a very simplistic approach: “Chinese products bad, don’t buy”. My opinion is that any approach should be focused on the quality of products, not the origin. By focusing on labels (and thus origin) you run the risk of punishing Chinese companies who do the right thing, not to mention damage the relationship with a very important economic partner.

        Also, I am not for less government. I am for better and smarter government though. I have a background in Public Administration. Not something I did to get to know the enemy…

      • Okay Anon point taken on, but even an independant testing organisation costs money. Who pays for it if not business? Take it out of general revenue? Might be a hard sell with the current budget.

      • This is where my European background shows. I consider enabling business as well as protecting citizens/customers as key responsibilities of government. Both a healthy economy and public health are to the benefit of the whole of society.

        Such an organisation should therefore be financed through general revenue (i.e. taxes) as you would want to protect citizens without impacting on competitiveness of Australian business or making it harder for new business to enter the market.

        I am aware that it doesn’t fit well with the widespread approach here that such a thing should be funded by those businesses themselves though.

        Mind you, an independent organisation is the only way you can prevent business interests from negatively impacting the quality of the checks…

        All this said, apparently there already is a (government) organisation that should be doing this, see post above?

      • This is why I act up whenever I see a discussion like this which in Oz seems to often go the way of asking for more regulation when the reality is that lack of quality implementation is to blame.

        I think you are trying to make a semantic argument.

        I’m getting the feeling that my comments are being judged as coming from a right wing libertarian. Far from it, I am just of the opinion that there are many solutions to a problem and that the best ones are often the ones that do not rely on bringing in more administrative burden. Perhaps this is a better definition of my arguments?

        Here’s the thing, you *are* talking about bringing in a greater administrative burden by suggesting that imported food should be better regulated than it currently is.

        “Regulated” in this context may simply mean better policing of existing laws (a la FIRB), or it might mean new laws where existing ones are lacking (ie: country of origin labelling). The distinction here is semantics – the point is that either of this will entail greater “administrative burden”.

        @Dr Smithy – labels as a solution is a very simplistic approach: “Chinese products bad, don’t buy”.

        No, it’s information that people may consider important, and for different reasons. Environmentalists, for example, might see a material difference between foodstuffs imported from New Zealand vs Europe or South America.

        Others may care about how workers are treated.

        My opinion is that any approach should be focused on the quality of products, not the origin. By focusing on labels (and thus origin) you run the risk of punishing Chinese companies who do the right thing, not to mention damage the relationship with a very important economic partner.

        The point here is not to identify which products come from China. The point is to identify what country foodstuffs come from.

        Think of it in a similar sense to blood diamonds. Do you only want to know about the quality of the diamonds, or does where they come from matter to you as well ?

    • AnonNL surely slapping a ‘Made in’ label on a bag isn’t as difficult or costly as a full-on testing regime.

      • I refer to my comment above:

        labels as a solution is a very simplistic approach: “Chinese products bad, don’t buy”. My opinion is that any approach should be focused on the quality of products, not the origin. By focusing on labels (and thus origin) you run the risk of punishing Chinese companies who do the right thing, not to mention damage the relationship with a very important economic partner.

        In this case labels will in practice come down to a boycot of Chinese products. A rather blunt intrument…

  4. I wonder if Abbott’s position stems from secret handshakes made to the Chinese during free trade negotiations?

    I note Labor and the LNP banded together yesterday to keep the text of those negotiations secret.

  5. mine-otour in a china shop

    Our politicians should also be tested regularly for competence, honesty and intelligence.

    We could then label them easily –

    red = moron and born on another planet.
    orange = volatile opinions depending on election timing
    green = shows some good sense and honesty but will never make it to front bench.

  6. I was at the GPs yesterday for my kidney stones; I asked how many people he had had tested for Hep A since the start of this outbreak. He said about a dozen. Multiple that by the thousands of GP and there is possibly thousands of people extremely worried about this.

      • And if the person is asymptomatic there is no indication for the test to be performed. They probably haven’t had time to develop the necessary antibodies anyway so a negative test doesn’t mean anything!

        Far easier for the GP to sign a form and send the patient away than to take the time to explain this though (which is understandable to an extent).

      • The early symptoms are fairly vague and the consumption of berries is fairly high. I personal blame the nutri-bullet for making smoothies so easy to make.

  7. Now waiting for Version 4 of this Government, perhaps this time Tony Abbott may listen to the welfare of Australians. This is another case of self regulation not working ie look at the corrupt grey hound racing self regulation.
    Is there something Tony Abbott is hiding with the China FTA same as with Japanese FTA aka submarines?

    PS Message to Andrew Bolt re yesterdays diatribe in News Corpse papers, “Pot Calling kettle black”!

    http://junkee.com/andrew-bolts-latest-column-condemns-bias-in-the-media-the-world-implodes-from-irony/51390

  8. I agree with Abbott! We should remove all compliance laws from food so that companies can make larger profits!!

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      and freely poisoning any with the temerity to complain.
      in fact it should be compulsory.

  9. It’s a worry when a PM should listen to George Constanza for advice… and that the advice would actually help him…

    Is he senile or something? Honestly there must be lost or damaged marbles…

    • What will happen when Chinese owner start growing our food on “their farm land” sold by our government? Who will chack them for “technologies” used to increase the crop? This is another question for answers by our caring politicians.

  10. It is curious to note that in and about the 1900s that gastrointestinal illness was the major killer of Humans do to poor food QC. It was not until Heinz made the political case for regulation and licensing as an economic benefit, that this observation changed.

    Between then and now the difference in man induced mortality and illness was life longevity and environmental toxicity.

    Now it seems we have and are increasingly reverting to the previous example.

    Skippy… sad actually as its easily remedied.

    • Yup. When it’s a choice between repealing the war on drugs, or allowing multinational corporations to do whatever the hell they want (like asking people if they are gay in job interviews), politically active libertarians ALWAYS go for the latter.

      It’s a doomed, bankrupt philosophy.

    • Right. You’re in the washroom after using the loo.
      You wash your hands (with soap if there is any). Then you turn off the tap (use your hands). Then you walk out of the washroom, opening the inwards opening door with one or other of your hands. So you stand a fair chance of re-contaminating your hands in a public washroom after washing them with soap because:

      1. Some men (don’t know about women) wash their hands without using soap, so contaminate the tap when they turn the water on AND off, and contaminate the door handle with said hands as they leave.

      2. even worse, some men (don’t know about women) don’t wash their hands after wiping their fundament, but walk straight out of the washroom, opening the door via the handle with said hands as they leave.

      Get it?

      Well, the designers of some recently constructed public facilities (at some airports for example) do.
      However, I wonder whether those new-fangled no touch hand dryers that blow air at high velocity upwards into your face and into the surrounding air are all that hygienic.

      • Changi airport has the dunny design right. I cannot fathom why we have those contaminated doors at all. Surely less doors are cheaper?

  11. If you hear someone use the phrase “it is the responsibility of business” and that person is not a judge or prosecuting lawyer, chances are pretty high they’re trying to screw you.

  12. It’s not just testing of imported food that is required but crystal clear labeling of the origin of food. None of this ‘Made from local and imported ingredients’ monkey business, this also needs to be mandated on imported products, especially from New Zealand.

    If using imported goods they should clearly indicate which countries the ingredients have been imported from and what the ingredient is.

    • +100

      To hell with this free trade nonsense. Sending us to hell in a hand basket (now where did I first see that saying?)

  13. Australian (processed) foods? Almost an oxymoron.
    Buy NZ processed foods? Have heard somewhere that NZ manufacturers don’t necessarily have to state on the label that the ingredients contained within their product might come from foreign countries. Noticed the flood of NZ processed food into supermarkets over the last few years?

    Should try the Oz manufactured/Oz owned version of yeast spread and peanut butter. More expensive than the others but more of a clean intense taste (for the yeast spread anyway) so goes further. Yum! Gets my vote.

    As for underpants, decent shirts, socks….Have no idea where I can buy genuine Oz brands any more.

    As for submarines and the F35… Bwaahahahaha!

  14. So attending a supermarket is now similar to visiting a casino. You may get the chance to WIN a communicable disease!