Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has joined a chorus of calls to revise Country of Origin Labelling for food.IMPORTED food products require unambiguous Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) to drive consumer confidence, says federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Mr Joyce fronted media on Tuesday amid urgent calls to improve food labelling measures after a Hepatitis A outbreak linked to a brand of imported frozen berries, allegedly from China.

Palmer United Party leader and Queensland MP Clive Palmer said the Hepatitis A incident could have been avoided with better food labelling.

Mr Palmer used the controversy to reiterate calls for urgent reform of Australian food labelling which he says would safeguard consumers, keep profits at home and protect local jobs.

“The serious Hepatitis A outbreak linked to these imported frozen berries is an example of what can happen when consumers do not know what they are buying because of inadequate labelling laws,’’ Mr Palmer said.

But Mr Joyce said the government was already taking steps to deal with the issue, including progressing recommendations from a parliamentary inquiry on food labelling handed down late last year.

That inquiry made eight recommendations on changes to the current CoOL arrangements to resolve consumer confusion.

Ambiguity must be removedFood labelling improvements were also being considered in the government’s Agricultural Competiveness White Paper, which Mr Joyce is discussing with Small Business Minister Bruce Billson.

“We need to make sure we have proper country of origin labelling,” Mr Joyce said.

“My belief is that when you go to the shop you want to pick up something and within a moment, know unambiguously where that product comes from; whether those tomatoes are from Australia or whether those tomatoes are from somewhere else; whether those cans of asparagus are Australian or whether they’re from somewhere else; and whether the berries are unambiguously from Australia or somewhere else.”

Mr Joyce said some food labelling terminology currently in use is “ambiguous – and I think, to be honest, mischievous”.

He said proper CoOL regulation would require removing the ambiguity around whether a product is made in Australia from Australian ingredients or imported ingredients, put together in Australia or packaged in Australia.

“People see the word Australia and think ‘safe’,” he said.

Mr Joyce said the issue also showed “quite clearly” that Australian produce earned a global premium because it’s seen to be safe and healthy.

“That’s why we get a premium for it in China,” he said.

Mr Joyce supported a review of food safety testing protocols – managed under Food Standards Australia New Zealand – done in conjunction with other portfolios such as health.

“I’m not going to start suggesting what should happen in other portfolios, as the Minister for Agriculture,” he said.

“But… if the thresholds need to be lowered, so more (import risk) needs to be examined, we would do that.”

Red flags and tagsIndependent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon called for an urgent independent review of Australia’s imported food safety regime over the widening Hepatitis A outbreak.

Senator Xenophon said he would also be moving for a parallel Senate inquiry into the issue, with the aim of an interim report being provided within a month.

He also said that the Hepatitis A outbreak strengthened the need for unambiguous CoOL laws.

“Currently you can call something ‘made in Australia’ so long as 51 per cent by value (including processing) was done in Australia – that’s nowhere near good enough for consumers to make an informed choice,” he said.

“This is a red flag that none of us can ignore,” he said.

“I wrote today to Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce requesting an independent review, while a Senate Inquiry will take a wide-ranging look at the health risks associated with the multi-billion dollar imported food sector.”

Mr Palmer said PUP wanted to introduce a coloured tag system to properly inform consumers of the origins of the products they buy.

“If a product contains more than 5pc of the product including packaging not originating in Australia, it would carry a red tag and if an item has 95pc or more of its content made in Australia then we would be proposing a green and gold tag,” he said.

“The aim of this kind of food labelling reform would enable consumers to be able to make informed decisions about their purchases and to promote and protect truly Australian goods and services for the betterment of everybody in this country.”

Current laws focus on processThe inquiry by the House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industries – Chaired by South Australian Liberal Rowan Ramsey – said current food labelling claims go to production or manufacturing rather than actual content.

“A food product with a ‘Made in Australia’ label will ‘not necessarily contain Australian ingredients’, though the Department of Industry stated it would be ‘surprising’ if the requirements of the safe harbour could be met without any Australian contents in the food product,” the report said.

Mr Ramsey said the current safe harbour descriptor of ‘Made in Australia, from locally and imported produce’ doesn’t provide enough information to track the product’s authenticity.

“We want to keep that part of the value but then we want to be able to say, ‘Made in Australia from Australian contents or Italian tomatoes or just imported ingredients’,” he said.

Mr Ramsey said the key recommendations of his Committee’s inquiry allow a label to say, ‘90pc made in Australia from Australian contents’, or ‘50pc made in Australia from mainly Australian contents’.

A level below that would say ‘made in Australia from Taiwanese tomatoes or whatever’.

“Using the same words all the way down the line gives consistency to consumers and they will be able to clearly identify the language because clearly they can’t identify what it means at the moment,” he said.

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