Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment (Forum on Food Regulation and Other Measures) Bill 2015- Second Reading


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:43): I support the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment (Forum on Food Regulation and Other Measures) Bill 2015. Before I talk on the bill, can I congratulate Minister Nash on the work she has done in FSANZ over the time that she has been in charge. It is not an easy body to be involved with. There are a lot of different and competing views in that organisation. But I am proud of the way the Commonwealth's representative has handled the job. So congratulations, Minister.

I am certainly no expert on genetic modification of foods, but I always wonder about foods that are sent to countries where there is real starvation and real problems in getting any sort of food and which seem to be blocked because of a view on genetic modification of foods. I am pleased to see the Greens are rethinking their standard opposition to genetically modified foods and I am pleased to see the new Greens leader does not believe genetically modified crops pose a significant risk to human health. Senator Di Natale has said that the literature so far around the issue of health has not produced evidence of widespread and significant harms. I am hopeful that the Greens might be taking a more sensible view on the issue. I understand the point that the previous speaker made about Australia's reputation for clean and green foods. I agree that is something that we need always to cherish, nurture and promote, but I am sure that in this country we are able to distinguish them and have arrangements in place where we can use genetic modification where it is useful to mankind but at the same time maintain the regulatory regimes that allow us to promote Australian produce, particularly in Asia, as clean and green.

This bill consolidates a number of issues with the food standards organisation that required attention. It relates to a competitive selection process, such as external advertising, which under the bill can occur simultaneously with the existing nomination process when recruiting for each vacant board position on the Food Standards Australia New Zealand board. I think that is something that is worthwhile and does help and should be supported by the Senate. I understand that in relation to consumer rights, science, public health and food industry board member positions this legislation amends the compositional requirements and appointment process in accordance with some recommendations endorsed by a forum that looked into this whole issue. The amendments proposed in the Food Standards Australia New Zealand amendment bill were proposed for introduction in the autumn sittings, but were postponed and have been consolidated into this bill. These amendments have been set out in a single food standards amendment bill, which we are dealing with at the present time. The bill makes amendments to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act to reflect the proposed change of name from the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council to the forum. It makes amendments to improve the clarity and operation of the legislation. Those amendments are intended to have regulatory efficiency and to provide greater clarification for businesses and for Food Standards Australia New Zealand by removing ambiguity and improving consistency in the way in which the act outlines procedures for consideration of food regulatory measures.

This is not a highly controversial bill, I would have thought, but it is one that requires the support of the Senate. Trying to read through the amendments in the act, I concede it is very technical, but I understand that the amendments are moved for the right reasons. They should be supported by the Senate.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand does a good job, generally speaking. I am concerned, however, in relation to what I am told is a problem that that organisation causes in relation to the labelling of seafood. More than 10 years ago—almost 15 years ago—the Australian government introduced regulations to provide that seafood sold at retail outlets in Australia had to be labelled as to its origin. Prior to that, you would go into your local supermarket and there was fish for sale, but you would have no idea whether it was wild caught Australian fish, farmed Australian fish or imported from overseas. Fortunately, the fisheries minister at the time, who was a pretty good guy, as I recall, changed the arrangements so that, in supermarkets at least, fish for retail sale had to be labelled. So if you go and do the shopping, as I occasionally do, you can see that the seafood in the display cabinet is barramundi that is wild caught in Australia or barramundi that is farmed in Australia or prawns that are caught and processed not in Australia but in Vietnam. There is nothing wrong with imported fish as long as Australians know and understand what they are buying. You will find that a lot of imported fish, such as vannamei prawns and basa, a catfish sort of thing that I think is produced in Thailand, is much cheaper than Australian fish. If people want to buy that that is fine, as long as they are well aware of what they are buying. That is why I think the move by the Australian government some time ago to make it compulsory to label where fish comes from was an important initiative. It has worked well and, as I understand it, has not caused any real problems with the supermarket retailers.

Australia has some wonderful fisheries in those few fisheries that are left. If the Greens had their way, there would not be any Australian fish caught in our country. The Greens seem hell-bent on shutting down every part of Australian waters that still produce fresh seafood.

At the moment up my way we are dealing with a marine protected area—an initiative, I might say, of the Howard government. Under the Labor Party, with Greens urging, before the last election, they were going to put in some plan for the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea marine protected areas, which would have effectively stopped the very small amount of fishing that occurs in those areas. Fortuitously, the coalition made a promise before the last election that we would review the guidelines for that marine protected area, and I understand that process has been continuing.

I can tell the Senate that there is a new fishery out there. It is always going to be a very small fishery, but it is being developed by very serious fishermen who have a scientific background and who want to ensure that fish can be caught sustainably there. They are giving the Australian public the opportunity to have fresh seafood on their table. That is very important not only from an economic point of view but also from a health point of view. Fish is a commodity that, regrettably, Australians do not eat enough of. One of the reasons for that is a lot of the fish that is available in Australia is, of necessity, imported—the majority of fish eaten in Australia is imported. We should be encouraging the Australian industry rather than denigrating it, as very often happens—particularly by the Greens political party.

We have the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, which is made up of good fisheries regulators and scientists. They very carefully monitor our fisheries and our waters to make sure that anything that is done in our waters is done sustainably. But we then have American environmental groups, like the Pew organisation, coming in—having ruined their own country—trying to tell Australia how we should be managing our fisheries and our waters. It is hypocrisy to the highest degree. The day that Australian scientists and regulators need some American environmental organisation—who are funded by oil companies—coming in to tell them what to do is the day that Australia should give up. I know that Australia will never give up and, therefore, I hope that the Australian government will ignore the urgings of the Pew organisation and the Greens political party when it comes to shutting down productive fisheries in Australia.

Australians deserve to have fresh fish on our table. We cannot do that if the fishing grounds are continually locked off. Our fishing grounds and waters in Australia are very carefully controlled and monitored by professional regulators and scientists to make sure that they are sustainable. We do not need the advice or the urgings of some third-rate American environmental organisation trying to tell our scientists and our regulators how to manage Australian waters.

What concerns me most about FSANZ and food labelling—and labelling of fish in particular—is that it is hard to get to the bottom of the issue. Perhaps, privately, the minister might be able to elucidate this some time. I would hope that what we do with fish in the retail area—ensuring that it is labelled as to country of origin—will happen in restaurants. If you go to a restaurant and order any sort of fish meal, you do not know whether it comes from Australia or from Vietnam or from the sewers of some South-East Asian country. You simply cannot find that out. You can ask the waiter, and I guarantee they will always say, 'Yes, this is Australian fish, Sir,' but sometimes you have suspicions that it is not.

I cannot understand why we do not require restaurants to label their menus with what the fish is that they are selling. I understand this happens in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory has this as a territory regulation, within the borders of course of the Northern Territory. They do have that requirement. If you go to a restaurant in the Northern Territory, you will find that fish is labelled. The menu will tell you where the fish comes from. I understand that each state government could similarly regulate within their own borders, but it seems to me that this should be done Australia-wide.

When I have inquired about it, I have been told that it is FSANZ that are the problem. Some people say it is the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association of Australia, but I doubt that—although I have not made the inquiry myself. Although they may have to change menus, in this day and age of computers menus are printed on the spot as people walk in the door. I do not see that as a problem for the catering and restaurant industry. It would mean that people would have knowledge of what they are buying when they order a fish meal at a restaurant

Very often my experience is that good fish meals do cost a bit more, but if you know where the fish comes from you then have the choice, as an Australian, on whether you want to buy fish that you know is fresh caught in Australia or pay a little bit less and perhaps have an imported species—as long as you know.

I would be hopeful that in the not-too-distant future we can get Australian regulations that require restaurants and fish shops to tell customers where the fish comes from. You can walk into a fish and chip shop and get some battered fish, which is not healthy but always tasty, but you never really know what is under the batter. But we could regulate Australia wide to say, 'You are required to tell people; by all means have imported fish and have it a little bit cheaper, but give consumers the option of knowing what they buy.' When I raised this with the former fisheries minister—without putting words in his mouth—my understanding was that it was Food Standards Australia New Zealand who were the problem with regulating labelling of the origin of fish in restaurants throughout Australia and New Zealand. I do not understand why—it is probably a bit too technical for me—but it seems to me that, on the face of it, there is no valid reason why restaurants and retail fast food outlets in Australia should not be required to label fish so that we know whether it is Australian caught or imported fish. I hope Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the forum under its new name, with the greater flexibility this bill will give them, will be able to address those issues in a positive way.

With that, I do, as I mentioned previously, support the contents and the purpose of the bill and urge the Senate to pass it.

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