The current Australian scandal surrounding the hepatitis A outbreak caused by contaminated, imported frozen berries has served the topic of food safety generously on to everyone’s plates this week. The recall was initially limited to just one product of one brand, but concerns have now spread to several brands, with the focus on frozen raspberries. Anyone who has had or made a berry-based fruit drink or smoothie in the last two months will be feeling a little tense, as will parents of pre-schoolers and school children who have been served these in child care centres and schools around the country.
There are plenty of different aspects to discuss on this topic, beginning with wondering just what food safety checks are carried out in the country of origin of the products, the benefits and drawbacks of free trade, the wisdom of sourcing food from a country where at least 60% of the groundwater is polluted (China. Edited 21 Feb 2015. I’ve seen varying estimates of this and this is the lowest figure I’ve seen. As it is the one that Chinese state media own up to, it’s the one I’ll go with), the true cost of food production, or our modern desire to eat ALL the produce ALL the time – regardless of the season.
The one thing this event has done is to focus many of us on the desirability of eating domestic product wherever possible. It seems like a bit of a no-brainer – we know how things are grown here and our produce is excellent, so if we just make sure to buy Australian then we’ll have no worries, right? Wrong.
Many of us spend considerable time in the supermarket squinting over the small print of food packaging trying to work out where the product comes from and sighing with relief when we see the word ‘Australia’ (or even ‘New Zealand’) on a label, but we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by some pretty misleading food labelling laws.
The words “Made in Australia” don’t necessarily mean exactly that – they can be used if the ingredients are actually imported, but mixed or packaged here. Further, with processed fruit or juice those words can still be used if more than 50% of the value of the product is added in Australia, and that 50% can include the packaging, labelling and the cost of the water used. The country of origin is sometimes further obscured by importers staging their imports through a third country, thus completely concealing the origin of the product.
The federal government has rejected an overhaul of food testing and labelling, with the prime minister saying that “companies shouldn’t poison their customers” and that they have an “obligation to ensure the product they sell is safe”, but there is a growing lobby calling for clear country of origin labelling of food. Australian consumers have a right to know where their food has come from. With appropriate labelling in place, those who wish to can then investigate growing conditions in the country of origin and make their purchasing choices based on fact, not woolly, weasel words on the package.
According to Choice, their research has shown that Australian shoppers are keen to support Australian farmers, making increasing efforts to buy local, and genuinely believe they are doing so based on the information available to them on food packaging. I think it’s about time that this information genuinely reflected the origins of what is in the package.
If this current food contamination scare worries you – and it should – then it’s time to get vocal. There is no point at all in calling for more people to buy local if most of us can’t work out what originates from here and what doesn’t. Start calling out for clear and transparent food labelling regulations and country of origin designations.
Seek out and support those who are making efforts in this direction, write to your local MP, write to your local paper and to the food producers with confusing labelling.
Ask the big supermarkets who produce their own brands exactly where the contents of those containers has come from.
Demand your right to be able to make a fully informed choice in the supermarket aisles and make it clear to big brands that you are no longer satisfied with confusing labels in microscopic print.
Ask questions and be a thorn in all of their sides.
Or not – and watch this happen again and again.