Shadow Assistant Health Minister Stephen Jones.FOOD labelling and safety has remained a point of political conjecture as federal parliament resumes in Canberra this week.

Shadow Assistant Health Minister Stephen Jones set the tempo yesterday when he called for stronger government action after 18 cases of Hepatitis A were confirmed over the weekend, following the recent outbreak.

Mr Jones said the virus outbreak was caused by berries imported from overseas that “got through our biosecurity inspection system”.

But he said many questions still remained unanswered.

“Why has it taken the government over five days from the initial discovery of the outbreak to act?” he said.

“Why didn’t the government act over the course of last year when it was clear from cases in Europe and North America that there was a severe risk with imported berries?

“Particularly the risk of imported berries from China, why did the government not act?”

Mr Jones also questioned why the government hadn’t acted to increase the risk rating for screening imported berries.

“We don’t believe that the risk rating has been shifted yet,” he said.

“This is despite the fact that the Department of Agriculture has called for this to occur; this is despite the fact that we had chaos and confusion last week where the Prime Minister was saying that 100 per cent of consignments would be inspected – we don’t believe that this is actually occurring.

“There are a lot of questions that remain to be answered this week and the government is being put on notice today that the Australian public demand answers to these questions.”

Highest safety standards expectedMr Jones said Australian consumers expected to purchase products from supermarkets – particularly food products – at the highest quality level available to them.

“Frankly, I don’t care where the products are coming from, whether it is China or anywhere else or whether they are grown here in Australia, Australian consumers deserve the highest level of safety that is available,” he said.

The berry issue was in sharp focus when officials from the Department of Agriculture faced questioning by members of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, at Additional Budget Estimates hearings yesterday in Canberra.

The position of interim inspector general of biosecurity, which Labor has accused the Coalition of seeking to remove in new biosecurity reforms, was due to be discussed, but was not because the berry issue dominated.

Department Secretary Dr Paul Grimes assured the Committee that his department had taken “firm and decisive action” on the recent issue, with imported berry products linked to the Hepatitis A outbreak having already been recalled.

Dr Grimes confirmed he and his department had also held discussions with Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and provided advice on several occasions over the past week.

He said some of that advice had been provided in writing but took a question on notice about the precise number.

Dr Grimes also said the Department had been working very closely and was in “continuous contact” with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Department of Health over the past week.

Looking beyond berriesNSW Labor Senator Doug Cameron also pressed Dr Grimes on whether the Department was also looking into other potential food safety issues, beyond imported berries.

Department deputy secretary Rona Mellor said the Department’s focus had been on getting on top of the recent berry issue but specific discussions about other potential issues would commence later, with FSANZ and the Department of Health.

“We’ve been particularly focussed on the issue at hand,” she said.

But Senator Cameron said the Department should have the capacity “to walk and chew gum at the same time” to deal with the berries issue, but also consider other potential food safety matters.

However, Dr Grimes said the Department did consider a range of food safety issues, not just berries.

NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan asked if the Department’s resources were doubled, would it make any difference to food security measures?

Ms Mellor said that would depend on where the resources were doubled.

Senator Heffernan said food safety was a global problem and politics should “get the buggery out of it and deal with the issue”.

Senator Cameron also asked Dr Grimes for details on any specific instructions the Department had received to find ways of reducing red tape in its compliance section, which could impact public health.

The question was taken on notice but Ms Mellor said process improvements had been made that “make good business sense”, like replacing basic paperwork with electronic reporting.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Agriculture Minister Richard Colbeck said people needed to be “cautious” about saying the recent issue was only about food imports.

“This could have happened here,” he said.

Argument erupted after Senator Cameron raised a point of order, when questioning diverted to business other than the frozen berry issue.

Senator Heffernan said: “We’re starting to eat our own vomit in terms of berries” before allowing other questions to be introduced.

Time for CoOL action: GreensThe Australian Greens are also pushing for tougher food labelling laws in the wake of the Hepatitis A outbreak.

Greens leader Christine Milne said better country of origin food labelling (CoOL) was an opportunity for consensus in Australian politics in the next week.

“Everyone agrees we need better food labelling to protect consumers and support farmers,” she said.

“The Bill is ready to go and the consultation has been exhaustive.

Let’s get this done.

“For too long, big supermarkets and overseas food corporations have made it really difficult to know where our food comes from.

“It is good that the Agriculture Minister now says he supports it.

“But he needs to put words into action.”

Senator Milne said the Bill she introduced last week would make country of origin very clear on food labels, to help protect consumers and support farmers.

She said it was the result of broad and extensive consultation, incorporating the recommendations of multiple reviews.

New country or origin labelling (CoOL) laws would establish the following labels:

‘Product of’ or ‘Grown in’ will be used to describe food that has been wholly grown and processed in a country.

‘Manufactured in’ will replace ‘Made in’ for food that has been substantially transformed in a particular country. The term ‘made in’ will no longer be used as many people think that ‘made in’ refers to where the ingredients were grown.

‘Packaged in’ will be used on food that has been highly processed but can’t claim to have either ingredients of significant processing in a particular country. Companies can still choose to highlight the source of significant ingredients if they wish.

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