With my background as a dietitian and passion for ethical and organic food, I thought I had a pretty high level of awareness about the food I consume and feed to my family, that was, until the recent frozen berry scare. Much to my horror, I discovered that the half eaten packet of frozen raspberries sitting in my freezer were the ones implicated in the outbreak of hepatitis A. While I would usually buy organic frozen berries, a few weeks back I had run out and grabbed a packet of the suspect frozen raspberries from the supermarket to make muffins for the kids’ school lunches. While none of us have shown any symptoms of the virus to date, at least 26 people across the country have not been so lucky.
This incident made me realize that I’m actually not as well informed about the food I buy as I thought I was. I therefore thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at where our food comes from and how imported foods are tested and labeled.
Which countries do we import food from?
Australia imports food from a number of different countries but New Zealand, USA, China, Singapore and Thailand are currently the top five countries of origin for food coming to Australia, in that order.
What foods do we import from overseas?
We import a wide range of foods from fresh fruit and vegetables (particularly canned and frozen) and fresh seafood to processed and packages foods, such as breakfast cereals, biscuits and chocolate.
What testing does imported food undergo?
Imported foods are tested by the Department of Agriculture based on which of the following three risk categories they fall into:
Risk food (100 per cent tested): These foods have a medium to high level of risk to the public, and tests carried out depend on the type of food. Risk foods are typically pre-prepared, ready-to-eat foods including certain cheeses, cooked meats and seafood and cured meats.
These foods are inspected 100 per cent of the time until good compliance has been established. They are then tested at a rate of 25 per cent of consignments, dropping to a minimum rate of 5 per cent of consignments if good compliance is achieved.
Surveillance food (5 per cent of food lines tested): All other foods are considered to have less likelihood of being dangerous to the public, but if a surveillance food fails inspection, the inspection levels are increased.
Food import compliance agreement: Importers can apply for an agreement that their food does not need to be inspected every time it arrives in Australia. If the Department of Agriculture agrees that their food management systems are satisfactory, the imports can be fast tracked at the borders.
Frozen berries currently fall under the category of surveillance food, however a recent media release by the Department of Agriculture states it has formally requested a review of the risk status of frozen berries from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, which is the body that determines the risk status of particular foods.
There is also the issue of the suspect use of pesticides in produce grown overseas. While a 2010 investigation by Choice found that of the 30 samples it tested only three contained pesticide resides – and even then at levels well below the maximum residue limit – they did voice concerns that the government only tests 5% of consignments entering Australia and that it doesn’t test for all the possible chemicals used, for exampleformaldehyde which is thought to be used by some Chinese growers to keep produce looking fresh.
What are the current labelling requirements?
For unpackaged foods imported into Australia:
The country of origin of the food must be identified, or, if the food is a mix of foods from different countries, the retailer can state each country of origin or that the food is a mix of local and imported foods, or a mix of imported foods. (without stating which the countries of origin which have contributed to that mix).
For packaged foods imported into Australia:
The country where the food was made, produced or grown must be identified; or the country where the food was manufactured or packaged and that the food is a mix of ingredients imported into that country or a mix of local and imported ingredients.
The country of origin of the ingredients can also be stated (but this is not mandatory).
‘Product of’ and ‘Grown in’ means that each significant ingredient or part of the product originated in the country claimed and almost all of the production processes occurred in that country. ‘Product of’ is often used for processed food and ‘Grown in’ is mostly used for fresh food.
‘Made in’ means that the product was made (not just packed) in the country claimed and at least 50 per cent of the cost to produce the product was incurred in that country. These products could contain ingredients from other countries. A product with a ‘Made in Australia’ label won’t necessarily contain Australian ingredients.
Some foods include claims on their labels such as ‘Proudly Australian owned’ or ‘100% Australian owned’. These statements are about the ownership of the company; they don’t indicate where the product was made or where its ingredients came from.
OK, if you’re completely bamboozled – that makes two of us! The bottom line is the current labelling laws are ridiculously confusing and allow loopholes so that food importers can get away with not stating the country of origin of ingredients in their products. Not happy!
So what can you do if you’re concerned about the safety of imported foods and want to try to stick mainly to foods grown and processed in Australia?
- Read the label. Unfortunately this won’t always tell you where the food you’re buying has been grown or processed but at least if the label is ambiguous, you can choose not to buy that product.
- Stick to eating mainly fresh, whole foods and limit processed and packaged foods. The majority of fresh fruit and vegetables and other fresh produce, such as meat, eggs and dairy products are still produced here in Australia.
- Where possible do your shopping at smaller specialty stores – your local green grocer, butcher etc. – which are more likely to stock locally-grown and produced food as opposed to the supermarkets which stock a wide range of imported products. Some supermarket chains (for example, without naming names, the relatively new chain beginning with the letter A) stock almost exclusively imported products, so if you want to buy Australian grown and produced, you should probably avoid it altogether.
Finally, please add your name to Choice’s petition calling for an overhaul of country of origin labelling laws here: http://choice.good.do/CoOL/write-to-barnaby-joyce/, so we can at least know where the food we buy is grown and/or processed.
As always, please remember to consume with care!