Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.FEDERAL Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has accused Labor of misrepresenting the government’s position on new biosecurity reforms.

Mr Joyce attacked Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s response to media questioning on whether he supported stricter food labelling laws, given the current food safety scare from Hepatitis A detected on frozen berries imported from China.

Mr Shorten accused the federal government of dragging its feet on biosecurity changes proposed by Labor and “now they’re not even going to have an Inspector General of Biosecurity”.

“I think the federal government needs to do a lot more to make sure that the food we eat is safe,” he said.

“I also think when it comes to fresh food in Australia, we should be encouraging people to buy Australian-grown and have more Australian made and Australian labelling campaigns.”

Mr Shorten also said it was, “alarming and really confidence-sapping” that berries containing Hepatitis A had entered Australia.

“I think the government needs to give a full accounting of how this happened,” he said.

“They like to talk about border security; but now what are they doing to make sure that the food that comes in here is healthy and isn’t making Australians sick?”

But Mr Joyce issued a statement saying Mr Shorten was wrong about the Inspector General of Biosecurity’s position being axed.

He said the role would continue on, despite sweeping changes to the nation’s biosecurity regime via the Biosecurity Bill 2014 which recently passed the Lower House.

“I must admit I waited for Mr Shorten’s press conference with great anticipation, believing something substantive was going to be announced – instead I got an announcement about something that never happened,” Mr Joyce said in a statement.

“The Coalition government’s Biosecurity Bill 2014 will ensure that the role of the Inspector General of Biosecurity will continue to provide important scrutiny of Australia’s biosecurity processes and procedures.”

Mr Joyce’s statement said that, in summing up debate on the Bill in the House of Representatives recently, the government also re-confirmed the Inspector General of Biosecurity’s role would remain, “an important part of the biosecurity system”.

During that debate, Nationals MP Mark Coulton also accused the Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon of being “a little mischievous” about his contribution to the discussion by suggesting the Inspector’s position would be axed.

Mr Joyce’s office also moved to clarify a similar statement this week from Mr Fitzgibbon.

“Following this week’s extremely concerning berry contamination, Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce should reverse their decision to abolish the position of Inspector General for Biosecurity immediately,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.

“Abolishing this critical position is incredibly reckless – Australia’s biosecurity systems must be as secure as possible.”

But Mr Joyce’s office said they provided notice to Mr Fitzgibbon’s office on February 6, showing the position wasn’t being abolished.

“The government remains firmly supportive of current Interim Inspector General of Biosecurity, and the continuation of that position as the Inspector General of Biosecurity within the new Biosecurity Bill 2014,” the statement said.

“Consistent with the government’s regulatory policy however, additional legislation to establish the Inspector General of Biosecurity as a statutory position will not be created.

“Instead, the Biosecurity Bill provides the Agriculture Minister with the power to review the performance of functions, or exercise of powers, by biosecurity officials under one or more provisions of the Bill (clause 567).

“These powers will allow the Agriculture Minister to conduct reviews into the biosecurity system to identify opportunities for improvement in the assessment and management of biosecurity risks.

“The Minister will be able delegate the review powers to an appropriately qualified or experienced person such as the Inspector General of Biosecurity or any other person the Minister considers suitable to undertake the proposed review.

“This gives the Minister flexibility to consider other individuals with differing expertise and select the person most suited to carry out the review.”

Mr Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Agricultural Media he and his party stood by all of the assertions they’ve made on the issue.

He said the Inspector General of Biosecurity’s position remained in name only but its tenure of security had been taken away and any independence and authority “dudded”.

“Barnaby Joyce has effectively given himself the power investigate how on performance and the performance of his department,” he said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the bottom line of the Hepatitis A scare was that companies “should not poison their customers”.

“Businesses have an obligation to do the right thing by their customers, they have an obligation to ensure that the product they sell is safe and, obviously, in some cases that hasn’t been the case,” he said.

“If I’m a reputable business, the last thing I want to do is to sell something that makes people sick.

“I want to sell something that is good for people and I’m sure that 99.99 per cent of businesses are trying to do that but, plainly, in this particular case it didn’t quite work.”

Mr Abbott also said the right balance had to be reached between appropriate food labelling laws and adding red tape and compliance costs that are eventually forced onto consumers.

He said Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) currently decides whether a product is high-risk which requires 100 per cent surveillance screening, while low-risk products require 5pc screening.

“I’m certainly very happy to see FSANZ have another look at things like the screening of berries from overseas – very happy for that to happen – but, in the end, it’s always got to be a question of judgement,” he said.

“It’s always got to be a question of getting the balance right, because every time we demand more regulation, every time we demand different kinds of labelling, we add the costs and the consumer has to pay.

“Now, I’ve got to respect consumers’ pockets; I’ve got to respect their financial health as well as other aspects of their health.

“It’s very important that government makes things better, not worse, and 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 which will raise unreasonably prices to consumers, because everything that we do in this area has a cost.”

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