Country of Origin Food Labelling

I want to start this afternoon by complimenting the Greens. I think I have probably been here for seven months and I have not said a kind word about the Greens, so it is remiss of me! But I do want to pay them a compliment this afternoon because I think the urgency motion they have put forward today is a very good one, a very timely one and a very urgent one.

It is good to see senators bringing issues to this chamber that are policy related—that are the issues that the people in Australia want us to talk about—issues they have wanted action on from us for years. This one is a very important issue and I am glad to see the government took some action last week. I do hear what Senator Siewert has to say, that we have been waiting years for this and why can we not do it tomorrow? Well, the government has announced precisely what it will do. Of course, now it has to make sure that those designs are put in place and that the appropriate regulations are made. In my understanding, that will be happening within months and not years, so that is a great thing.

I will get to the detailed design in a second, but I wanted to start by saying that this is not just something that Australians want, it is something that everybody everywhere wants. They want to know where their food comes from. It is an increasing issue across the world, where we now have a global food marketplace. Not that long ago, most of the food we would have eaten would have come from not that far from our homes. But now, with refrigerated transport and global supply chains, the food that we eat can come from all around the world and people want to know where their food comes from.

Last year I was in China, and people in China want to know where their food comes from. They really want to know. When you walk into a Chinese supermarket you can see that they have different sections for different countries, it is clearly labelled and you actually understand what you are buying and where it comes from. If you go to our supermarkets here in Australia it is a complete melange—a complete pot pourri. You have very little idea of where your food comes from. The labels are confusing and there is significant vagueness and also get-out clauses from the safe harbour provisions which currently exist in our country-of-origin food-labelling laws, and that creates confusion for consumers. And when there is confusion, people ignore it; when they do not understand what is on the front of their product they do not read it. When it is not clear, people do not worry about using it.

In the last couple of decades in Australia we have greatly improved the information about what is in our food, whether it is how much salt is in there, how much sugar is in there or how much energy is in our there; with pretty much everything you pick up these days you can see it has the same table with the same information across a variety of processed and non-processed foods. We need something similar in this area as well.

Because that information is consistent people can pick up a box of cereal or pick up a chocolate bar, look at that table and actually use it. I think the Blewett review, which came out a couple of years ago, found that that table of information was used increasingly by consumers because it was consistent across products and it was easy to understand.

We need something similar in country-of-origin food labelling because we do not have an easy-to-understand model at the moment. That is why both the industry minister, Ian Macfarlane, and the agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, have both said that we need a system that people can see easily and work out when they pick something up so that they know whether it is Australian or not. We are going to put something like a pie chart or a circle on labels—it sounds very technical, but it will be very easy to understand—and how much it is coloured in will tell you how much comes from this country. So, if it is all coloured in then it will be 100 per cent Australian grown and produced; if it is 50 per cent Australian grown then half the circle will be coloured in; and if there is no circle at all then there will be less than 50 per cent or no Australian produce. That is very easy to understand and it will give our farmers and our food manufacturers a clear, identifiable marketing tool for them to advertise to consumers that if they want to buy Australian and to support Australian farmers that they know what to look for in the supermarkets.

For those products that come imported, there will be labelling requirements about text that they will have to put on their products—where it came from or what market it was produced in. That text will have to be 30 to 50 per cent larger than the surrounding text to make sure that there is not a fine print issue.

So, the details are there. Some senators have said that we do not need any more inquiries, that we can just act tomorrow. Well, in fact, the government has already made it pretty clear what it wants to do. Obviously, we now need to define that in detail in law. We have to go through the proper processes of government, which include taking a submission to cabinet and consultation with the backbench. I presume there will also be a form of committee review in this place; I do not think that something like this would come in without some consideration by the Senate as well. So all those things must be done and they should be done properly. But it is a great win for those who have been calling for this for some time, that we finally have action. It is unfortunate that sometimes you need to have—I do not think it was a crisis in the last couple of weeks—an incident to pressure people to change. Sometimes that is the way it has been and it has probably always been thus.

I have not been involved myself, but I do want to pay tribute to people like Senator Siewert, Senator Sterle and Senator Williams, who sits next to me here, and Senator Madigan too. They have been working through these issues for years and, because they put good ideas on the table, when last week's incident occurred with frozen berries those were the ideas that were picked up and taken up by the government. So I congratulate them and I look forward to these new requirements coming into place.

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