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Further to go to make sure our food is labelled clearly and efficiently

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 13 Feb 2017

I rise today to speak on the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Country of Origin) Bill 2016. The Greens have been leading the way on country-of-origin labelling law for years. We want to see labelling laws that work for Australians—that work for Australian farmers, manufacturers and consumers. Since 1998 we have been working with the industry to develop our proposal to make country-of-origin labelling mandatory for all packaged and unpackaged food sold in Australia. The Greens' proposal since that time would simplify country-of-origin labels to three basic claims: something has to be either made in Australia, grown in Australia or manufactured in Australia.

We want to encourage companies to highlight any significant local ingredients. This bill does not do that, but it does go some way to simplifying the system that we currently have. That is important, because we know that Australians want to do the right thing when they are buying their food. When they are standing there in the supermarket aisle and trying to choose between this tin of tomatoes and that one, they want to be able to know what it means. When we are at the supermarket and see 'made in Australia from local and imported ingredients', no wonder many of us feel confused. To make an informed choice the community needs clear information about where their food is coming from. How much of the product is local? Was it all made in Australia, and does that change depending on what season it is made in?

The amendments that we are discussing today are primarily intended to simplify the tests used to justify claims like 'made in' by clarifying what 'substantial transformation' means and removing the confusing 50 per cent production cost test, which becomes redundant for food products with the introduction of labels showing the percentage of Australian ingredients. This legislation is putting in place a system so that if a business makes a country-of-origin claim for a product and it is alleged to be misleading, deceptive or false, that business has an automatic defence to the allegation if it can show that the product meets the safe harbour defence for that claim. The bill also creates a new safe harbour defence for products labelled in accordance with information standards, so that businesses can have more certainty about the labelling they can make without breaking the law. So, as far as these changes go, we support the legislation before the chamber today. However, I would like to quickly mention the important work of the Australian Greens on country-of-origin labelling and the ongoing fight for transparency and the consumer right to know, particularly in regard to food and agriculture products. Clearer food labelling is good for public health, the environment and local farmers. It gives them the extra tool to enable them to compete in our globalised marketplace. The Greens recognise that food-labelling laws should not be dictated by global food and beverage giants or the big corporations in the city. If you are a local Australian farmer working with your local co-op, you do not have the clout or power that those global corporations have. But that does not mean that your concerns should be considered to be less significant than the claims that are being put by the global manufacturers.

If we are better informed about where our food is coming from, we can trust that it is going to be top-quality produce that we know we can rely on from Australian food producers. We can be clear about where internationally sourced ingredients have come from so that you can make an informed choice. You can decide that, no, you do not want to be buying produce from somewhere that you are a bit suspicious of. You can make the choice and say, 'No. I would prefer to pay that little bit extra'—to be supporting Australian farmers, to be supporting food production that you know is being well regulated and manufactured, with food being grown in a sustainable way. You know you can be supporting that farm production where you can be sure that there can be a spotlight on it, if required, to make sure it is being done in a sustainable and healthy way.

Having good country of origin labelling will also encourage people to consume more fresh produce. By thinking more about the origins of the food, we automatically eat in a way that is healthier and more ethical. So, again, if you are deciding about a cheap tin of tomatoes that you have suspicions about because of where it has come from, you can decide maybe it would be better to buy the fresh tomatoes that you know have come from the market garden only tens of kilometres away. You know that you can have more confidence in the health and sustainability of how that food is being produced.

Also, by giving consumers information about where their food has come from and by encouraging locally produced produce to be squarely compared with other produce, it means it is much more likely that consumers are going to decide that, yes, it is worth paying what may be just a little bit extra to buy that Australian produce. That means it is going to be contributing to reducing the pollution that causes global warming. If we are buying more locally produced produce we are not flying ingredients and food from the other side of the world and paying the transport costs involved in that. Having really good food labelling helps us to better understand how far our food ingredients have travelled to our plates.

One of the examples I often use is: when I am buying lentils and you have two packets of lentils on the shelves and you have to get out your glasses to look at the difference between these lentils. With the lentils grown in Canada, I think, 'Fine. Terrific. People in Canada, go ahead and eat those lentils.' For people in the US, it would be appropriate to eat those lentils. If, on the other hand, you look the next little bit along the shelf and you have exactly the same product that is made in Australia, I will always go for that made-in-Australia product. For those sorts of choices, by giving information to consumers, you have the ability to be really supporting our local food-growing industries. So our farmers and our food producers will be the beneficiaries then of that strong, local demand.

This bill is a step in the right direction, but clearly there is further to go to make sure that our food is labelled clearly and more efficiently. As well as supporting this bill before the house today, we call on our colleagues to support the Greens plan for country-of-origin labelling so that we can create more sustainable local jobs and allow everybody to make more informed choices about choosing the food that they eat.

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