Xenophon calls for a review of Australia’s imported food safety regime

Independent Senator for South Australia, Nick Xenophon, has called for an urgent independent review of Australia’s imported food safety regime in the wake of the widening hepatitis-A outbreak linked to frozen berries from China.

In addition, Senator Xenophon will be moving for a parallel Senate inquiry into the issue, with the aim of an interim report being provided within a month.

Xenophon said the outbreak undermined the confidence Australians placed in the safety of the $13.9 billion in imported food each year (2014 – ABS).

“This is a serious and widening outbreak of illness apparently caused by basic hygiene failures in China. These berries were considered ‘low risk’ but failed the most basic of health checks – carrying a bacteria common in faecal matter. Our entire imported food surveillance and risk management system, conducted by the Department of Agriculture and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), must be independently reviewed so as to fix any systemic problems and clear the air,” Xenophon said.

“For example, the Government does not test for bacterial infections of foods, as part of its spot-checks of 5 per cent of low risk food imports. Our system is almost entirely reactive, in that it tests five per cent of food products as the enter the country. We should be looking at issuing permits to export to Australia, so that adequate sanitation and health checks can be carried out in advance.”

Senator Xenophon also said that the hepatitis-A outbreak strengthened the need for “unambiguous country-of-origin labelling 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,” said Nick.

He said that a suitable independent review could run in parallel with a Senate inquiry by the Rural and Regional Affairs Committee, and he was preparing draft terms of reference.

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

The Greens party and Nick Xenophon have renewed focus on country-of-origin labelling by reintroducing a food labelling Bill on Thursday (18 Feb), before the berry recall was issued.

In response to the recall, Australian-Made has issued a warning to check country-of-origin labelling while Choice called on the Federal Government to take action on stricter country-of-origin labelling.

Eight people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus after eating frozen mixed berries, including three cases in Victoria, two in NSW, and the three Queensland cases reported on Monday.


Food labelling bill reintroduced to parliament

The Greens party and Nick Xenophon have renewed focus on country-of-origin labelling by reintroducing a food labelling Bill.

Australian Made Campaign chief executive, Ian Harrison said “The current issue with imported frozen berries highlights the need for clearer country-of-origin labelling, as it appears consumers may have been confused about where they came from.”

The “frozen berry issue” refers to the recall of four products distributed by Patties Foods was triggered after people reportedly contracted Hepatitis A after eating Nanna’s Frozen Mixed Berries.

Australian-Made has issued a warning to check country-of-origin labelling while Choice called on the Federal Government to take action on stricter country-of-origin labelling.

Australian Made Campaign chief executive, Ian Harrison said “While we welcome the reintroduction of this Bill, the Government is yet to announce its decisions on the food labelling enquiry undertaken last year by the House of Representatives Senate Committee on Agriculture and Industry. It would make sense to complete that review before commencing yet another one,” Harrison said.

For a number of years the Australian Made Campaign has been calling for the regulations under Australian Consumer Law to fall into line with the more stringent rules for using the Australian Made, Australian Grown logo, thereby eradicating critical loopholes that currently exist.

“The Australian Made Campaign supports – and in fact originated – the proposal to draw up regulations to clarify the concept of ‘substantial transformation’ and to specify processes which, by themselves, do not satisfy this test,” Mr Harrison said.

“The proposal to label food in such a way that highlights significant ingredients – ‘Made in Australia from Australian milk’ for chocolate, for example – as long as all requirements for a ‘Made in Australia’ claim are met, makes good sense as well.

“We still cannot however support the Bill in its current form. We do not see the value in banning the claims ‘Australian Made’ or ‘Made in Australia’ for food products in favour of the equivalent terms ‘Australian Manufactured’ or ‘Manufactured in Australia’.”

Mr Harrison said that a continual point of confusion for consumers was the use of qualified claims such as ‘Made in Australia from imported and local ingredients’. The Australian Made Campaign opposes the use of qualified claims unless the product satisfies the full ‘Made in’ test.

“Australian consumers have the right to know where their food has been made and grown, and it is important that we strengthen country-of-origin labelling for the benefit of Australia’s farmers and manufacturers as well – it is a vital asset in these trade-exposed sectors.”

Choice has criticised the current system, saying the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry missed an opportunity to simplify it.

Choice has called for the following changes:

  • ‘Product of Australia’ or “Australian produce” = significant ingredients and virtually all processing to be from the country claimed
  • ‘Manufactured in Australia’ = Relating solely to manufacturing
  • ‘Packaged in Australia’ = Relates solely to manufacturing
  • Consumer testing of any changes to ensure they are meaningful

Consumers with enquiries can call the Patties Consumer Hotline, 1800 650 069, between 7am and 9pm.


SA edges closer to a free range egg code of conduct

SA has drafted a voluntary free range egg code, where egg producers who meet the conditions will receive a trademarked tick of approval.

The South Australian Cabinet yesterday (9 February) approved the draft Fair Trading (SA Free Range Egg Industry Code) Regulations and associated trademark.

The Code outlines that in order to receive the endorsement, providers must meet conditions such as:

  • A maximum density of 1,500 layer hens per hectare on the outdoor range
  • Hens to have unrestricted access to outdoor areas during daylight hours
  • Outdoor areas to provide adequate shelter; and
  • A prohibition on induced moulting by food deprivation

“An effective and fair regulatory scheme cannot be made or implemented in haste and there is still more work to be done. We will be working with stakeholders and egg producers to seek their feedback on the draft voluntary code and trademark,” said Minister for Business Services and Consumers Gail Gago.

The national body that administers legislation governing trademarks, IP Australia, is required to examine the proposed trademark to ensure it doesn’t conflict with existing trademarks.

Also, the ACCC must assess and approve the rules for the use of the trademark to ensure it is not detriment to the public, likely to raise concerns relating to competition, unconscionable conduct, unfair practices and product safety.

The draft has prompted consumer watchdos, Choice, to call for a national free range egg standard.

“All Australians deserve greater clarity over free range eggs. While we welcome SA’s certification, we need an enforceable national standard on free range eggs that meets consumers’ expectations,” said Choice spokesperson Tom Godfrey.

NSW Fair Trading commenced work on the development of a national information standard for free range eggs in June 2014, following a super complaint from Choice.

CHOICE’s super complaint pointed out that while close to 40 percent of the egg market is free range, the egg industry had admitted that many products labelled ‘free range’ do not meet the existing voluntary national standard which sets a maximum stocking density of 1,500 hens per hectare on the outdoor range.

“What we need now is for other state and territory governments to follow the leadership position taken by both New South Wales and South Australia and deliver a national standard for consumers,” said Godfrey.

“A national standard makes sense for businesses and consumers. At the moment we have an absurd situation where consumers are given different information about eggs in different states. A shopper in Mount Gambier, SA will be getting different information to a shopper in Mumbannar, VIC even though the towns are half an hour apart.”

“Without an enforceable national standard, Australians in most states continue to pay a premium for eggs labelled ‘free range’ with little confidence they are getting the real deal.”

“A national standard will help us unscramble the meaning of free range, benefiting consumers and genuine free range producers across the country.”

The latest news follows the Federal Court’s ruling in September last year that Pirovic Enterprises engaged in misleading conduct and made misleading representations in its labelling and promotion of eggs as ‘free range’. It also follows the ACCC’s decision in December to take the supplier of Ecoeggs to court for alleged false and misleading free range claims.


Senator criticises ACCC’s decision not to oppose Primo takeover

Nationals Senator for New South Wales John Williams has called the ACCC’s decision not to oppose the proposed acquisition of Primo by JBS “very disappointing.”

As part of the review process, Williams lodged submissions on behalf of concerned people in the livestock industry, and their common worry was that the takeover would lessen competition at the saleyards.

Senator Williams said the ACCC agrees there is some lessening of competition, but then claims it is not a substantial lessening of competition.

He said the ACCC claims Primo is not a strong competitive restraint on JBS and tries to justify the distance of more than 500 kilometres between Primo’s Scone abattoir and JBS’s Queensland abattoirs to support its case.

“This is out of touch with reality because cattle can and are transported many hundreds, even thousands of kilometres,” Williams said.

“I find it confusing that on one hand the ACCC will not oppose this acquisition, yet in the next breath says it is wary of the potential impact of the further consolidation of abattoirs. If that is true, why didn’t it act in this instance?

“From talking with farmers and those in the livestock selling industry I know this decision will be met with dismay and only time will tell whether it is right,” Williams said.


Abbott to cut small business tax rate by 1.5 percent

Prime minister Tony Abbott has confirmed that small to medium sized businesses will be paying less tax as of 1 July, 2015.

Abbott made the announcement yesterday at the National Press Club, stating that a cut “at least as big as the 1.5 percent already flagged” will apply to SMEs from the start of the 2015-16 financial year.

However not everyone is pleased with the announcement, namely Australian largest 3,000 businesses who will continue to be taxed at 30 percent as opposed to 28.5 percent – the original figure flagged in the coalition’s budget in May, 2014.

Speaking with Smart Company, Small Business minister Bruce Billson said that the tax cut was designed to benefit SMEs, not disadvantage the big players, and that the 1.5 percent cut is merely a starting point.

“The 1.5 percent [company tax cut] has been reaffirmed and the important thing from the prime minister’s speech is that there is clear sense of priority that we want to go beyond that.”

Billson also added that the govenment is working on measures to 're-energise business' and boost employment.


Adelaide couple on trial for supplying raw milk

A couple who sold "shares" in their cows to supply unpasteurised milk are on trial in Adelaide for breaching food standards.

Prosecutor David White said Mark and Helen Tyler from Willunga Hill, south of Adelaide, operate what is known as a "house cow share scheme" for about 30 milking cows, ABC News reports

They offer shares to the public for about $30 each, which allows people to take home bottles of unpasteurised milk, also known as raw milk, after paying an additional "boarding fee".

White said the Government did not allow the sale of unpasteurised milk under the Food Act because of public health concerns.

It is, however, legal to drink unpasteurised milk from your own cow.

Mr Tyler brought a cow to the Christies Beach Magistrates Court to show people what they were buying when they bought shares.

He argued they were buying into a cow rather than purchasing milk.

The trial heard evidence from Lance Holberton, who helped carry out an investigation for Primary Industries and Resources South Australia (PIRSA).

He purchased a share in a cow and collected some milk after paying his boarding fee.

His interaction is the subject of the first charge against the Tylers – selling milk that did not comply with the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Code (ANZFSC).

Another PIRSA official is due to give evidence during the trial that he took samples of the milk from the dairy in August 2013.

The samples were tested and showed microbiological contents well in excess of allowable levels under food standards.

That evidence is the subject of a second charge: failing to comply with a requirement of the ANZFSC.

The trial is listed to run for three days.


Ministerial Forum to consider approving low THC hemp as a food

The Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum will meet tomorrow (30 January) to review the use of Cannabis sativa with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, in both seed and seed oil, as a food.

Hemp or industrial hemp is a Cannabis plant species (Cannabis sativa). Historically, hemp has been used as a source of fibre and oil.

Hemp is different to other varieties of Cannabis sativa, commonly referred to as marijuana. Hemp contains no, or very low levels of THC (delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical associated with the psychoactive properties of marijuana.

Hemp seeds contain protein, vitamins and minerals and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp seed food products may provide an alternative dietary source of these nutrients.

In December 2012 the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation sought a review of a FSANZ decision to approve an application seeking to permit low-THC hemp as food. This means the sale of foods containing hemp-based ingredients is still prohibited.

In New Zealand the sale of hemp seed oil as a food has been permitted since 2002, subject to certain conditions.

In December 2013, the Forum agreed to extend the review period until 30 June 2014 and asked for further advice from FSANZ. At its meeting on 27 June 2014, the Forum considered FSANZ’s advice and advised FSANZ that the review was due to be completed on 5 December 2014. The review has been completed and will be considered tomorrow.

The Forum received advice from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, recommending approval of the sale of hulled and non-viable hemp seeds.

FSANZ conducted an economic analysis as part of its assessment, which concluded the approved variation would provide moderate benefits to industry and consumers. 


An Australian first: Making a raw cheese work

Three years ago, Saul Sullivan, master cheesemaker of Udder Delights in the Adelaide Hills, set out to create an impossibility. He wanted to make a raw milk blue cheese in a country where the regulations strictly forbid it.

"I remember the auditor's first comment was, 'what? Are you nuts?' I went home to my wife Sheree, she's a cheesemaker too, and she said it can't be done. Everybody in the regulating authority said it can't be done," Sullivan says.

"Even when we went to our mentors in Europe, who I would consider some of the world's elite cheese makers, they said the regulations won't allow you to make it.

"That was like a red flag to a bull. I thought this is just the challenge I need. This is what I've been doing this for."

Sullivan had decided to put his own name on the line. King Saul, as he's called it, was to be a reputation-making product for Udder Delights that holds its umbrella over an entire brand.

Above: King Saul's blue cheese.

Sullivan started with his fascination of raw milk cheese. He says that common opinion holds the raw cheese coming out of Europe to be generally superior to the pasteurised products made in Australia.

In a strange twist to the regulations, European raw milk cheese can be sold in Australian stores, even though manufacturers here are generally forbidden from making it.

Sullivan travelled across Australia and Europe, looking for scientific answers as to why unpasteurised milk yielded better results in cheese. The consensus was that pasteurisation killed off 'the flavour'.

"I used to go to the experts in Australia and ask, 'what are you killing off?' No one could actually tell me, besides the potentially hazardous bugs that are living in the milk. What it actually is, there are natural flavours that come through in the taste of a raw milk cheese," Sullivan explains.

"I had to speak to a professor in France about it. Everyone else was very cagy about why the European raw milk cheese tastes better. The professor told me about a non-pathogenic bacteria called Hafnia alvei that lives in the very cleanest terroirs around the world."

Hafnia alvei can be found throughout cheese regions such as Bordeaux and Roquefort. Sullivan began his search across the Adelaide Hills farms that Udder Delights sources its milk from, using extensive micro-testing of the soil in an attempt to track down the bacteria.

They found Hafnia alvei occurring naturally in the Mount Torrens region – the very same strain found in Europe. 

He explains that it works like a sponge, living in the dirt, the grass, the hay, the fields, the flowers and waters, collecting the naturally occurring flavours of the environment it resides in.

Cows consume all of that, and the Hafnia alvei ends up in the milk. Pasteurisation typically kills it, but in raw milk cheese, the bacteria survive and their 'sponge' is wrung out over time. It gradually releases the natural flavours, the terroir, in to the cheese.

"As the cheese is maturing, it keeps breaking down the fats and lipids, the proteins, and it will continue to release these flavours and they will intensify. It's like a honeybee. You can put a hive around a Eucalyptus Gum or an Orange Blossom and you'll get that flavour in the honey."

Above: the soft cheeses room at Udder Delights.

Having found the secret ingredient, Sullivan set about research and development of how to implement it in to his cheese. The dairy authority had granted him a one-off permit to research raw milk blue, but the regulations aren't conducive to making such a product.

"You need less than 39 percent moisture. You need your pH to be below five. It has to have 90 days maturing at above 10 degrees. These are all things that a blue vein cheese does not like."

Over two and a half years, Sullivan worked on developing methods to create King Saul in line with the regulations. He had laboratories poring over Hafnia alvei and testing the safety of his cheese.

"The laboratories were saying to me, man, you want to patent this stuff. But I can't – it exists naturally. You can't trademark a region. You can't trademark Hafnia alvei. All you can trademark is the way that you use or adapt it.

"Our intellectual property is specific to the dairy industry. We know how it works and responds with milk and feed, and I believe there are areas regarding the bacteria that we stumbled across that would take people years and years to work out."

He is fairly confident their techniques will not be replicated – or at least the cheese can't be. Working to the limitations of the Food Standards regulations, the final product has taken on a fairly unique character.

After two and a half years of research, King Saul was complete.

Sullivan describes his Edison moment – ten thousand tries before he finally nailed it. One day, he put the cheese trier in a King Saul wheel and had a taste.

"It blew my mind. I knew we had something phenomenal there. That afternoon I had the phone call with the dairy authority and they said to me, 'Yes Saul, but you've only been given approval to research and develop. There has been no approval – and we cannot that guarantee that this will ever be able to be sold.'”

On the chance that he did get approval, Sullivan had to prepare for the launch. If the micro-testing came through with a good result and the authority approved it, the release had to happen straight away. The labels had been hand illustrated in France, the boxes for the product were all handmade.

Above: the labelling room.

There are less than a handful of raw milk cheeses made and approved for sale in Australia. The others are all hard-pressed cheeses – there's no living bacteria or mould in them, which is the main reason there had been no legal raw blue cheese in Australia. If Sullivan got his approval, it would not only be the first raw blue vein cheese made in Australia, but the first living raw milk cheese.

"We were waiting on the final approval from the Dairy Authority, from the CEO. Sheree and I were out to lunch and an email came through with the letter of approval to release the product for public sale.

"We were so excited. There and then I ordered a bottle of champagne, and because I was so emotionally overwhelmed, I went to the toilets and had a bit of a cry. I try and be a macho man but I was so overwhelmed I had to get up and have a tear in the toilet. I felt like I had just won the lottery."

Despite any anxiety that the regulations caused Sullivan in the development of King Saul, he respects the fact that they exist.

"It really is amazing to see and understand what is in raw milk. I definitely am a very big advocate of pasteurised milk for human consumption. Particularly when playing with raw milk cheese, it really is and should only be left up to extremely experienced individuals."

Sullivan says that in the end, even passing all of the regulations and micro-testing requirements, it was only his title of Master Cheesemaker and the years of experience behind it that got King Saul over the line.

"There was the bath milk episode recently…one is a completely illegal, unregulated industry; the other is not. It's like buying unregulated pharmaceuticals for your children – you just don't do that.

"I am a big advocate for the manufacturing of raw milk cheese because it can be done safely. But it needs to be done with respect and responsibility. The discerning foodie in Australia is demanding and deserves a better quality cheese."

Udder Delights released the first run of King Saul in December – 160 of the 250 wheels produced in their first batch. It's sold as a premium product at $150 for a 500g wheel. According to Sullivan, that barely covers the cost of production and research – he himself was essentially working for free.

"What I will say is this: we're just packing, packing, packing pallet loads of cheese. What the King Saul has already done for Udder Delights, it has had a phenomenal halo effect on the brand. We're up 100 percent for November and December and we can't keep up with orders."

Above: the finished product.

It appears the prestige of having the only raw blue in Australia has boosted the business' profile beyond the one product – not only have their other cheeses reaped the benefits of trickle-down RnD, but the company's wider reputation has been boosted as well.

"Orders are so much bigger – they're at least 100 percent above what we had last year. It spiked with the launch of King Saul. I know you get a spike for Christmas – this is like a triple spike. It's completely unconventional in the terms of the rhythm of our business."

Much like Grange did for Penfolds, Udder Delights is betting their reputation will be made on their most premium, small run products.

Courtesy of The Lead South Australia: www.theleadsouthaustralia.com.au


Dairy Food Safety Victoria to regulate sale or raw milk

Dairy Food Safety Victoria will be in charge of regulating the sale of unpasteurised or ‘raw’ milk, following the state government’s announced crack down on the product.

The ABC reports that Dairy Food Safety Victoria is contacting all licensed dairy farmers to inform them of the requirements of the new regulations.

"People who are producing dairy products not intended for human consumption, will clearly identify those products and make them so they are not able to be consumed, in the same way that other consmetics are treated," said Jennifer McDonald, the chief executive officer of Dairy Food Safety Victoria.

"There are a number of different ways that they can deter consumption, and a bittering agent is one of those ways."

The regulation change follows the recent death of a three-year-old child from Mornington Peninsula late last year who drank Mountain View Organic Bath Milk.

In addition, another four children aged one to four, from Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs and the Mornington Peninsula became seriously ill after drinking other brands of unpasteurised milk.

According to McDonald, there appear to be only four Victorian producers selling ‘bath milk’. She said that all have been co-operative and her organisation is informing them about the best ways to comply with the regulations.

Health experts say that unpasteurised milk is not safe to drink because it can contain pathogenic bacteria which are harmful to humans.

Pasteurisation involves the heating of milk for a short period of time in order to destroy any such bacteria which may be present.

Liberal MP calls for GST on food

Liberal backbencher Dan Tehan has called for the GST to be broadened to include fresh food which is currently exempt from the tax.

Writing in the AFR, Tehan said that by broadening the indirect tax to include fresh food as well as other currently exempt goods and services like health and education the government could collect as much as $21.6 billion in extra revenue each year.

He said that governments have not broadened the GST because of ‘flawed arguments of unfairness or political cowardice’.

He pointed to New Zealand as an example Australia could follow.

“Since its introduction in 1986, New Zealand has raised its GST twice. It also recognised from the start that the only way to reap a full GST benefit is to have minimal exemptions,” Tehan wrote.

“Their GST covers 96 per cent of their consumption. Australia’s only covers 47 per cent and is shrinking, down from 53 per cent a decade ago.”

“As a result, the Kiwis now enjoy a company tax rate of 28 per cent and a top marginal income tax rate of 33 per cent.”

Both the Labor Party and the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) dismissed the call to broaden the GST.

"Be in no doubt: this is not members of parliament acting alone," acting opposition leader Tony Burke told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

"You look at what is being flagged today and there is no doubt this government is paving the way for changes to the GST."

Burke added that applying GST on food would hit people’s pockets "every time they go and buy food, every time they go to the grocery store, every time they reach out for the fundamentals and essentials of life".

According to the NFF, including fresh food in the GST would have a negative impact on the welfare of Australian farmers and Australian families.

“We want Australians to eat more fresh food, not less. Increasing the cost of food could mean consumers demand less fresh fruit, vegetables and protein, leading to a decrease in overall sales and poorer health outcomes,” said NFF CEO Simon Talbot in a statement.

“The reality is that the retailers aren’t going to forego profit. This means that farmers are likely to be forced to absorb the increase in costs. They are not able to pass on their costs.”

Tehan said attempting to protect the poor by GST exemptions is not good policy because everybody, not just the poor, benefit from the exemptions.