AS the Chinese scramble to buy more Australian food because they prefer its quality and trust its product safety credentials, shoppers here are being warned to expect more food imports arriving from China.

With food companies increasingly globally structured, even local businesses find they must resort to sourcing ingredients offshore to combat lean profit margins.

Consulting food industry strategist Lynne Wilkinson said many Australian companies were also struggling to compete with the farm commodity supply chain’s rising commitment to overseas processors, while cheap imports from Asia, South America and Africa had become readily available.

However, this week’s Hepatitis A scare, linked to frozen berries sourced from China, has highlighted the fact that most fruit and vegetable imports are not subjected to hygiene checks on arrival.

At the same time, the strict minimum sanitary requirements for our fresh, frozen and frozen product exports or domestic sales were not applied to many imports, according to peak industry body Ausveg.

The peak grower body said while Australian vegetable farms alone each spent an “several thousand dollars annually” on quality assurance audits, regulatory testing and compliance time, last year’s $758 million of imported vegetable products were subject to almost no microbiological tests at all.

Unless long-awaited, clearer food origin labelling laws were legislated and governments paid more attention to the fast changing food import-export supply chain, Ms Wilkinson said shoppers would continue to be duped and food health scares could be more common.

At least 14 Australians were this week confirmed to have contracted Hepatitis A after bacteria, possibly from human waste, was believed to have contaminated packs of Nanna’s and Creative Gourmet frozen mixed berries imported from China.

The products were imported by regional Victorian-based Patties Foods, which Ms Wilkinson said most consumers would likely expect to use local produce in line with its mission statements about providing integrity and value.

However, she said the Bairnsdale company, whose board primarily consisted of directors with international business experience, had resorted to importing ingredients and products from China and Chile.

“While the rest of the world wants to buy our produce because Australia is recognised for its food quality, local companies and supply chains are being heavily influenced by the international supply chain, or being bought out by foreign businesses,” said Ms Wilkinson, whose experience has spanned farming, retail branding and the Australian-made industry lobby.

“Our commodity export mentality is not helping, either.

“Exporting may be fine, but it shouldn’t be let restrict our supply chain security and food quality here in Australia.

“Governments should be supporting the sustainable competitive advantage our agricultural products enjoy, rather than making false assumptions about how the supply chain is being managed.

“We can’t as a county think everybody else overseas has the answer. We have to stand up for ourselves.

“At the end of the day Australians don’t want to be left buying local food brands which don’t meet their expectations.”

No attention on ag practicesAusveg deputy chief executive officer Andrew White said canned and frozen vegetable imports grew 36 per cent in the past five years, largely coming from Italy, China and New Zealand, with some NZ product originating elsewhere before being re-packed.

“Only 5 per cent of vegetable products are checked by AQIS, and that’s mainly focusing on testing for 49 ag chemical residues or labelling defects,” he said.

“There’s no real attention paid to on agricultural production practises, or testing for bacteria left by handling and water quality during processing.

“We want the quality assurance standard imposed on locally-produced vegetable lines to be the same for imported product and we need much more clarity on country of origin labelling.”

Australian-owned lobby group Ausbuy said the imported hepatitis scare highlighted the need for better food labelling to identify its true origins.

“People want to know what they’re buying,” said Ausbuy CEO Andrew Butler, joining a chorus of voices venting about ineffective country of origin label rules, particularly the confusing category “made from locally and imported products”.

“The Australian brand speaks quality, but in some instances it is not always possible to have 100pc Australian-grown in the pack,” he said.

“We need to see what lessons we can take away from this horrible health scare and ask why quality standards aren’t more uniform.”

Ausbuy is in the throes of revamping its own activities around Australian-grown and owned products and companies, including a new website listing to help shoppers.

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