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.