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.
Wow! I can’t believe your rant I just read!! While I am from another “colony” also, let me assure you, that buying local, is definitely no assurance that you are purchasing uncontaminated food! I think, that instead of using the cue cards from the “Climate Change” religious fanatics, you should have concentrated more on insisting that there be local government inspections! But then of course, you get into unlicensed family farms selling a few eggs, free range chickens that eat their own droppings, etc. all without inspection, which I can easily live with. BUT Chinese groundwater??? Totally out of context, even if it were true! In North America, the US, not Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Chile, etc., ships more salmonella-contaminated food then anywhere else, by a long shot! Insist on Federal inspections! Wow, that was almost a rant also! Slap!
Tania @ The Cook's Pyjamas
One of the major problems is that we as a society have become so disconnected from our food sources. Where once we ate according to what grew in the veggie patch, we now grab something from the supermarket because we feel like eating it and it is available all year round. I agree with you that we need clearer labelling, but we also need to re-educate the population about food supplies, and that not all food is available all the time.
Our demand for everything all the time is what keeps the food manufacturers in business. They want to keep us in the dark about labelling, it is in their financial interest to do so. With clearer labelling many of us would seek out the Australian made products, which is not really what the bigger companies want. And all the more reason why we should push for it.
Hopefully this type of issue really will be a wake up call to the labelling and safety laws. I do try to buy local (Australian) produce whenever possible and hate it when the labels are confusing eg. ‘Packaged in Australia using local and imported ingredients’ How are we supposed to know what that means? And most places will use the most affordable product regardless of origin so that makes it tricky as well to know what food you’re consuming. Pretty cranky about it, I’ve been at the doctor this morning and have a liver scan scheduled for next week 🙁 Won’t stop me eating berries, I’ll just make sure they’re True Blue first!
US food production conditions are not the same as Australian, Frank. And as for the groundwater issue – in April of last year the Chinese state media reported that almost 60% of it is polluted. That is their own, possibly conservative, estimate.
I don’t want to buy any foods imported from China as I’m very aware their quality control standards are very sub-par compared with ours. Definitely better disclosure on packets of where the produce has come from is long overdue xx
Lizzy (Good Things)
An excellent ‘rant’ Amanda…. definitely writing to some of the supermarkets and asking where their product comes from… there’s nothing worse than buying a food item that you think is safe, having strained your eyes to read the tiny print, only to find out it’s from overseas… and especially from a country you’d really rather not buy from!
To be fair, if the Chinese government say that 60% of their groundwater is polluted, I don’t think we can extrapolate that to 90% simply because they tend to be conservative.
I’d love better labeling on packaging, so that we can make more informed decisions. Sure, Aus consumers will say they’re happy to support Aus farmers, but very few put their money where their mouth is. I know that if given the choice of buying imported frozen berries at $9 a kilo versus (often mouldy) fresh ones at $9 a 150g punnet, I’ll still be buying frozen. The difference is that I’ll now be cooking with them rather than eating them raw.
Before we point the witching stick at countries with what we regard as “inferior” processing/hygiene/food safety standards, let’s not forget that most cases of food poisoning occur from local produce – and unlike the infamous Garibaldi case in Adelaide, most of it goes unreported. The only person I know who ever got Hep A picked it up from eating contaminated local oysters. Our standards may be “higher” than most, but we’re by no means perfect.
Actually, Celia, the number of those actively purchasing Australian produce over imported is growing. I’m not suggesting that we are perfect, but I am saying that as consumers we should be able to make an informed choice and that is not an option for us under current food labelling legislation.
Yes, couldn’t agree more with that. I’d like to know where the peanuts in my peanut butter are grown – and processed – and who owns the company. As you say, we really can’t make informed choices without more information – at the moment, we so often have to guess!
I have just emailed the company whose packaged bacon I bought recently, to ask where their pork comes from. The pack clearly states “Product of Australia”. If in fact, it is a product of China and processed in Australia, I will not be buying that brand again and will be asking the question of where it originated before I buy. I know this is just the tip of the iceberg, but you gotta start somewhere!
Ann – to my knowledge, most imported bacon products which enter this country come from the US or Canada, but are packaged here and labelled “Product of Australia”.