Hepatitis Linked to China Berries Spurs Abbott Food Label Revamp

Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledged legislation to enforce clearer country-of-origin labeling for food products after consumer concern spiked in Australia in the wake of a hepatitis A outbreak from berries grown in China.

Abbott is acting after the frozen berries sold by an Australian company triggered at least 18 cases of the disease, which leads to abdominal pain and fever. The new labels will include a pie chart that breaks down the country-of-origin for all ingredients, the government announced Thursday.

“This has been a very serious problem in recent days,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra on Thursday. “Whenever we have a problem with imported food in particular, people want to know more about where their food, where their products are coming from.”

The outbreak comes as trade of food between Australia and its largest agriculture market ramps up after Abbott and President Xi Jinping signed a free-trade agreement in November. China is seeking to bolster confidence in its food industry after a series of scandals from melamine-laced baby formula to rat meat sold as mutton.

“The issue about the berries has brought into sharp focus that people can’t work out where their food is coming from,” said Tom Godfrey, spokesman for consumer advocacy group Choice. “Australians want to know the origin of their food, whether it’s from China or anywhere else, so they can make informed decisions.”

The new law would need to be passed in the Senate, where Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition needs support from other lawmakers to pass laws. The government didn’t say when it will introduce the legislation to parliament.

Eliminating Tariffs

As part of their free-trade agreement, Australia is eliminating all tariffs on agricultural and processed food imports from the Asian nation. Australian agriculture and fisheries exports to China were worth A$9 billion ($7.1 billion) in the year to June 2014, according to the government.

Bilateral trade between the two countries reached $141.6 billion in 2013, about twice as much as with Australia’s second-biggest partner, Japan.

The berries had been washed and packaged for Patties Foods Ltd. at the supplier’s factory in Shandong province, the company’s Managing Director Steven Chaur told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Feb. 16. Since news of the outbreak emerged, the Victoria state-based company’s shares have fallen 11 percent.

A survey of 700 consumers by Choice found 12 percent of respondents know the correct meaning of the “Made in Australia” label and 25 percent understand what’s meant by “Product of Australia.”

Bio-Security

“Australian products that have labels like ‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients’ are misleading,” Godfrey said. “While it evokes Australia, the ingredients in it don’t have to come from here.”

Australia also intends to enhance bio-security screening, Abbott said Thursday. Government lawmakers will draft a submission on the improved labeling system and present it to the cabinet by the end of next month.

“Australian consumers have the right to know where their food is coming from and the political leaders should support any action to ensure a level playing field for Australian farmers,” AUSVEG, a horticultural body representing the nation’s 9,000 vegetable and potato growers, said in a statement Thursday.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE