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Heavy metals from China's farmland put consumers in Australia at risk

By RJ Whitehead , 24-Apr-2014
Last updated the 24-Apr-2014 at 08:34 GMT

Heavy metals from China's farmland put consumers in Australia at risk

The risk of consuming harmful heavy metals by eating produce from China’s heavily polluted farmland is now so great that one Australian industry body has warned a parliamentary inquiry due to look into country-of-origin labelling laws that current requirements put the health of consumers at risk.

Data recently released by the Communist Party of China indicates that almost one-fifth of the country’s agricultural land—or approximately 1m sq-km—is contaminated by toxic metals such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic, which can be carcinogenic and cause kidney damage.

Two decades of explosive industrial growth, the misuse of agricultural chemicals and minimal environmental protection were cited as the major contributing factors to China’s declining soil safety.

‘Mortifying’ findings

Considering China is the number two source of vegetable imports to Australia, these findings are mortifying,” said Hugh Gurney of AusVeg, which represents Australia’s vegetable and potato growers.

Last year, it was estimated that approximately A$110m (US$93m) worth of vegetables were imported to Australia from China; however, Gurney said the amount of potentially harmful Chinese produce reaching Australian dinner plates is likely to be much higher than official figures suggest.

Under current trade agreements with China, New Zealand may import processed vegetables from China, repackage them as ‘Made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients’, and ship the product to Australia for consumption.

The risk associated with the consumption of Chinese produce is now indisputable. We should not allow inadequate Country of Origin Labelling requirements continue to put the health of Australian consumers at risk.”

Federal inquiry

A parliamentary inquiry recently announced by the federal government will investigate country-of-origin labelling and examine whether the current system is satisfactory, where improvements can be made, the current levels of compliance, and whether laws are being sidestepped by importers through third-party countries.

AusVeg welcomes the inquiry and calls for a thorough investigation of current country-of-origin labelling laws, to allow Australian consumers to easily identify foreign produce. It would be shameful to continue to let ineffective country-of-origin-labelling legislation impede Australian consumers from making well-informed choices at the supermarket,” added Gurney.

AusVeg’s stance, however, is at odds with that of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, which believes current labelling policy is largely sufficient. 

The AFGC will be making submissions to the House of Representatives Inquiry supporting the current laws that prohibit false, misleading or deceptive representations about the origin of goods,” an AFGC spokesman told FoodNavigator-Asia by email.

There are some aspects of the current laws that the AFGC considers can be improved, but the basic structure seems to be working well and is being enforced, with action being taken by both federal and state/territory agencies to stop misleading origin statements.”