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.