Aussie produce industry calls for stricter country of origin labeling
Two leading Australian produce groups have called for stricter country of origin labeling laws in light of the recent Hepatitis A outbreak, which is thought to be have been linked to frozen berries packed in China.
At the time of writing, 14 people had been infected with the disease and the manufacturer of recalled berry products had indicated the contamination likely occurred in China at the time of picking and handling.
Both the Australian Horticultural Exporters Association (AHEA) and vegetable and potato peak grower group Ausveg have urged the government to take action to prevent similar events in the future.
"The AHEA believes the government should implement a control measure to inspect and authorise processing facilities in China as currently happens for fresh fruit export facilities," the association said in a release.
"Appropriate testing needs to happen as an obligation of the supplier in the country of origin. Implementing additional checks at the border in Australia would prove very expensive, cause delay on the clearance of imported goods and create inconvenience for retailers.
The entity pointed out that while the frozen recalled berry products were packed and washed in China, the labeling stated "Packed in Australia from Imported Goods".
"There should be clear country of origin labelling on all imported foods so consumers know exactly where the product is coming from. Currently you can label a product "Made in Australia" as long as 51 per cent by value (including processing) was carried out in Australia, noting that Australian labour costs are at least double most of our Asian and South American competing traders," the AHEA said.
"The AHEA believes this is nowhere near good enough for consumers to make an informed choice."
Ausveg challenged Australia's food processors, manufacturers and importers to provide proof that improved country of origin labeling laws would place unreasonable cost burdens on their businesses and consumers.
"Despite the groundswell of public support for improved Country of Origin Labelling laws, there remains a reluctance to take decisive action in some segments of the food business sector, which have pointed to unreasonable costs as a barrier to a better system," said Ausveg spokesperson Andrew MacDonald in a release published last week.
"To the disappointment of AUSVEG, even the Prime Minister took this line in a media interview earlier this week.
"If cost is indeed the main reason that Australian consumers are being deprived of the opportunity to know precisely where the food they are consuming comes from, then we challenge manufacturers, processors and importers to prove it with tangible evidence."
The organization said a cost could not be placed on consumer protection.
"By failing to act on Country of Origin, businesses and the government are doing precisely that," McDonald said.
"We are urging Australia’s food processors, manufacturers and importers to do their duty as corporate citizens."
The AHEA said it was worth noting that frozen berries could come from any country as long as they adhered to strict import guidelines, including that the product is free of risky quarantine materials like soil, leaf trash, stems and bark.
"However, Australia is the envious position of having access to fresh berries of Australian or other country origin all year round. Most fresh fruit imports are counter seasonal and do not carry the same level of risk as processed frozen product which is subject to multiple handling and processing points," AHEA said.
"When we import fresh berries into Australia, they mostly come from New Zealand which is able to sell strawberries, cranberries, English gooseberries and blueberries. The United States also exports strawberries to Australia. These countries have strict health and hygiene practices.
"Fresh berries are required to have an import permit, be disease and pest free, inspected on arrival and some are required to undergo mandatory treatment."