Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash.PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has promised tighter food labelling laws in the wake of the scandal involving hepatitis A-contaminated berries imported from China.

The changes under consideration, however, would not have prevented the problem with the frozen berries because they were already clearly labelled as “made in China” and “product of China”.

Nonetheless, the frozen berry issue has rekindled long-simmering concerns among the Coalition backbench which an embattled Mr Abbott cannot afford to ignore.

After several MPs used Tuesday’s weekly party room meeting to demand better food labelling laws, the Prime Minster gave a commitment to respond. He has assigned Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash to develop a proposal.

It will be limited to removing ambiguity about the origin of the contents of an item and where it was packaged. Presently, labelling can be as vague as to say “Made in Australia from local and imported products”.

Mr Billson said the new laws would require labelling which disclosed the country of origin of the content and, if appropriate, where it was packaged and processed.

Last week, after the berry issue arose, Mr Abbott was reluctant to embrace change, saying the first consideration should be to not increase red tape on business and that market forces would guide consumer choice.

“The bottom line is that companies shouldn’t be poisoning their customers,” he said.

Victorian distributor Patties Foods had recalled1 kilogram packets of Nanna’s frozen berries and 300 gram and 500g packs of Creative Gourmet Mixed Berries after health authorities confirmed hepatitis cases in four states. Contamination was linked to poor hygiene and water supplies in a Chinese packaging plant.

Labels that read “Made in Australia from local and imported products” are a long-running point of contention.

Mr Billson said the idea was to improve labelling while keeping any red tape increase to a minimum. The government is consulting the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC).

A council spokesman said: “The AFGC supports changes to country of origin labelling that are meaningful to consumers and avoid cost and complexity. The AFGC also backs industry schemes such as the “Australian Made Australian Grown” logo because they are well established as markers of Australian product, and give consumers a very clear signal if they want to support Australian growers and food processors.”

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