While the Australian government is being forced towards country-of-origin labelling, contaminated food will continue to enter Australia until quarantine-testing of imported foods is seriously upgraded.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce
After years of procrastination and opposition from the major supermarket chains, the public, angry over recent toxic imported food imports, is forcing the government to consider mandatory country-of-origin labelling of foods.
The move follows an outbreak of the hepatitis A virus from contaminated mixed berries imported from China; a dramatic increase in Clostridium difficile (C-diff), a spore-forming bacterium that causes severe diarrhoea and is resistant to many antibiotics; and several cases of scombroid food-poisoning in a Sydney café from toxic tuna imported from Thailand.
About 70,000 packets of Nanna’s frozen mixed berries, packed in China and distributed in Australia by Patties Foods, are sold here each week. They are now subject to recall.
Regarding the C-diff-contamination of onion imports, Thomas Riley, a professor of microbiology at the University of Western Australia, says that an upcoming report reveals a spike in cases that appeared in 450 hospitals across the country in 2011-12.
Professor Riley told the Sydney Sunday Telegraph (March 1, 2015): “Looking at the nasty strain in patients, we found (their genomes) were identical…
“We overlayed imports of [U.S.] onions at the time for this particular bug and it (the genome) was a perfect match.”
He said that the United States is currently experiencing an epidemic of C-diff, with 500,000 cases a year and 15,000 deaths.
He warned that any root vegetable fertilised with human or animal manure had the potential to carry the bug.
While Australia’s supermarket chains have been importing contaminated onions, some local growers have been dumping their produce because the supermarkets have given preference to imported onions.
The Department of Agriculture insists that it fumigates imported onions; but Professor Riley said that “fumigation won’t do anything to C-diff spores, and conventional cooking will not kill the spores either”.
According to The Australian (February 21, 2015), “The federal response to the crisis has been marked by confusion, buck-passing and damage control, as thousands of schoolchildren, and childcare infants who consumed the suspect products, wait to see whether they have contracted hepatitis A.”
Now Prime Minister Tony Abbott has asked Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to prepare a submission for Cabinet by the end of March.
While enforcing stronger country-of-origin labelling will help to trace contaminated foods back to their source, 90 per cent of consumers buy on price, not country of origin, and stronger labelling rules alone will not prevent future food-poisoning outbreaks from imported foods.
In fact, the problem could worsen as the supermarkets continue to source more food overseas.
As News Weekly (May 21, 2005) has previously detailed, the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) is responsible for testing imported foods for chemical residues that violate Australia’s food safety standards.
The frequency of testing depends on a number of factors — such as the level of preconceived risk of a product; the track record of imports from a particular country or supplier in a country; and the practice that new imports are tested more frequently than those from established sources.
Most fresh food imports from China fall into the category where testing is done on 5 per cent of imports, for 25 chemical residues. Australian-produced food is tested for several times as many chemical residues.
Further, AQIS does not test imports for “old world chemicals”, such as DDT and dieldrin, or for heavy metals, with the exception of cadmium. And yet many developing countries still use such chemicals that are banned from use in Australia.
In many emerging economies:
• There are no laws governing the use of pesticides and chemicals.
• There is no training and accreditation of farmers in the use of pesticides and chemicals.
• Many farmers lack education and have little or no knowledge of how to use pesticides and chemicals.
• There is frequent overuse of chemicals and pesticides, leading to dangerous residue levels in food.
• Heavy metals contaminate farmlands and foods in some Asian countries;
• There are few, and often no, food-testing facilities in these countries to ensure the safety of food products to consumers, be they local or overseas.
• Some farmers use raw human and animal sewage to fertilise their product.
The vast majority of imported foods are not checked for contaminants at the point of entry to Australia, and are not inspected in the warehouses of the supermarkets and other importers.
Therefore, Australian importers and consumers will have no firm assurance that imported foods satisfy Australian food safety standards on pesticide, bio-toxin, heavy metal and other chemical contaminants in imported foods, unless these foods are comprehensively tested by Australian authorities.
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.