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Consumer's Right to Know (Food Information) Bill

First Reading

Wednesday 28 June 2006 Hansard source (external site)

Debate resumed from 14 June.

StreetMARYAN STREET (Labour) Link to this

I wish to speak to the Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill. The Labour Party is opposing this bill. We oppose it on a couple of grounds and I will make those clear as we go along. The key purpose of the bill is to address the labelling of food, particularly in respect of GM-derived food or GM-derived ingredients, country of origin, and method of production.

There are some central points to this. Setting up a system to verify a food product requires a multilayered approach covering point of production, point of manufacture, point of export, etc. We have in our system currently the Fair Trading Act and Consumer Guarantees Act, which are, generally, consumer protection laws that require traders and manufacturers to be able to verify any claims they make of food they produce and sell. In New Zealand we have gone for general verification procedures, redress around those procedures, and strong food safety provisions. What we require of anyone selling food in New Zealand is that it is safe. Our concern is that every New Zealander has access to safe, nutritious, affordable food. A lot of public health and safety information is currently mandated for foods, including allergenic ingredients for the top eight products that cause allergies, use-by dates, nutrition information, and the contact details of the manufacturer in New Zealand or Australia, or the importer. Even more information is often available by contacting the manufacturer should a consumer want to pursue any particular concerns.

However, this bill is not about better nutrition. Food needs to enter the market place as safe and once it is in the market, it is too late. That is why we have pre-market assessment for foods, such as additives, processing aids, novel foods, and GM foods. We have heard quite a lot recently from the submitters to the Health Committee’s obesity and diabetes inquiry that labelling is already problematic. In fact, it is quite frequently—

MappDr Wayne Mapp Link to this

Which way are you voting?

StreetMARYAN STREET Link to this

I have said that we are opposing the bill. Labelling is already problematic. Sometimes it is said that one needs a degree in chemistry or physics to read or interpret labels.

The second point I wish to address is the issue of country-of-origin labelling. Historically, New Zealand has not supported the concept of a mandatory country-of-origin standard for the following reasons. Country-of-origin labelling is primarily a marketing tool that should be employed by food suppliers on the basis of commercial decision-making. It is clear from a very recent report on cost-benefit analysis conducted by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research that there was nothing to be added to the case for country-of-origin labelling. It identified the costs of country-of-origin labelling for industry that are likely to be passed on to consumers. It notes that the increased burden of compliance costs will fall more heavily on New Zealand food suppliers than Australian suppliers, but it was not able to quantify benefits.

It would be inconsistent and potentially damaging to New Zealand’s international trade interests if New Zealand were to oppose mandatory country-of-origin labelling internationally—as we have done in relation, for example, to United States and Canadian requirements for meat—while adopting it domestically. When I have been shopping overseas the discovery that the beans came from Kenya and the dates came from Egypt has not influenced my purchase of food. The key point in food available to the consumer in New Zealand is that it is fresh and it meets the New Zealand food standards we have in place already.

StewartBARBARA STEWART (NZ First) Link to this

New Zealand First will support the Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill going to select committee. We believe that this is a very important issue that New Zealanders want to have some input into. I have received many emails about this bill. It is an important enough issue to be discussed widely, and this is an opportunity to do so. It is really ironic that, as consumers, we are told where our clothing, shoes, and electronic equipment have all been manufactured—and I know the Minister Annette King said this afternoon in question time that that was a legacy from a trade agreement—yet we do not know where our food originates. That is really taking away the choice for all New Zealanders.

In New Zealand First we believe that if our food—and here we are talking particularly about canned food—is grown overseas or imported, we should be informed on the label. Yet we are not. We know we are given that information for fresh fruit and vegetables—

KedgleySue Kedgley Link to this

We’re often not.

StewartBARBARA STEWART Link to this

Mainly; sometimes we are—but not for most other foods. So we cannot find out where our food comes from by reading the labels in the supermarket. That is quite outrageous. Many New Zealanders are becoming increasingly concerned about their health, and they want to know where their meat, chicken, whitebait, tinned fruit, vegetables, and even their apple and orange juice actually originated.

We all like to think these products are New Zealand - grown products. After all is said and done, we are buying them in a New Zealand supermarket, so we automatically assume that those products are grown here in clean, green New Zealand. But the unfortunate fact is that, quite often, it is only the packaging that occurs here in New Zealand—sometimes only the labelling. So what we have is the product being grown overseas, the packaging being carried out here in New Zealand, but the consumer being left with the impression that it is a wholly New Zealand - grown product. How wrong we often are. We could really say that, in this case, the packaging is totally misleading. New Zealanders deserve to know what they and their families are eating. It is our right to know. Consumers want the opportunity to choose locally produced goods over imported goods. We want to know the way they were grown and harvested.

I received an email some days ago from a Dr Anderson in Tauranga, who told me that country-of-origin labelling is carried out far and wide, even though it is not carried out here in New Zealand. In Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia, most foods have to list their country of origin. In the European Union, beef, fruit, vegetables, fish, olive oil, eggs, poultry, meat, and honey all have to be labelled as to their country of origin. In the US, country-of-origin labelling is mandatory for all imported foods. In Australia, the country of origin must be identified for packaged foods, fish, pork, fresh fruit, and vegetables. So, all in all, we are lagging behind in this particular area, I believe.

There needs to be more stringent rules around the labelling of foods containing GM products. It would definitely make it far easier to identify those products on the supermarket shelves. In Europe, foods derived using GE technology have to be labelled. Really, when we look at it we can see that New Zealand’s labelling laws for GE or GM foods are far from adequate. With around 25 genetically engineered foods approved for the New Zealand food chain, it is nigh on impossible to find a food label that states that a product contains a GE ingredient. That is not good enough. Animal feed derived from GE should be labelled so that we are aware of that when those products are passed into the human food chain. We really want to know whether our food contains GE ingredients.

The bottom line is that we do not know half as much about our food as we should. This bill is about honesty in food production. Consumers have a right to know more about their food. There is an old saying that we are what we eat. Therefore, it is really important that we are fully informed about what it is we put into our bodies. New Zealand First supports this bill.

FlavellTE URUROA FLAVELL (Māori Party—Waiariki) Link to this

Tēnā nō tātou katoa. Over half a century ago there was a bilingual quarterly publication entitled Te Ao Hou, which had as its purpose “the provision of interesting and informative reading for Maori homes … like a marae on paper, where all questions of interest to the Maori can be discussed.” I turned to in terms of trying to find some way forward with regard to this particular bill, the Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill, at this point in time—in particular, around the views that Māori people had about health.

In that source I found this quote: “The traditional foods of the Maori people built splendid men and fine looking, strong women and all of these foods were gathered from New Zealand’s soil or waters. With the coming of the pakeha and his food, however, the Maori people are forgetting some of their own foods and adopting more and more of the pakeha foods … Pakeha food such as meat, bread and tea has come and come to stay, but do not neglect your own excellent foods, your puha, your fish and your kumaras.” There is some sound advice in there. The excellent foods of tangata whenua—our pūhā, fish, and kūmara—may well have stood us in good stead in a world that is rapidly being spoiled by food that is affected by pesticides, heavy metals, industrial chemicals, and other contaminants.

The food industry in Aotearoa has been grappling with the sweeping tidal wave of genetic modification over the last decade. Over the last 10 years, food manufacturers have been requesting information about the levels of GM-derived ingredients in food products and animal feed products. They also require the country of origin of certain foods to be on their labels at a point in time. Back in 1952 the origins were indisputable. Octopus, kina, rock oysters, kōura, crayfish, kuku, pāua, pipi, and toheroa—where else would one come across those but on the foreshore and seabeds of this fine land? Hāpuku, tarakihi, snapper, kahawai, mangō, and pātiki—there was no risk then of purchasing such foods with “Made in Taiwan” emblazoned on their wrappings.

It is from the base of that pure, healthy kai that the Māori Party is delighted to support Sue Kedgley on a bill that is very dear to our hearts and our puku. We believe that all consumers—tangata whenua and tangata tauiwi alike—have the right to make meaningful decisions about the kai they purchase. And they can do so through having sufficient accurate and detailed information on all labels, or at the point of sale. We support the right of consumers to know the composition of all foods derived from gene technology—not just those with detectable levels of GM protein or DNA remaining after processing. We support the right of consumers to know whether eggs are free range, barn produced, or from caged hens. In this so-called information-rich world, mandatory labelling on egg packages and seafood—whether caught wild or farmed—is surely in the best interests of all consumers. Accurate, truthful, and meaningful food labelling will also enable us to be compliant with national and international food standards.

Of course, we acknowledge that it will require more work to ensure that manufacturers follow rigorous standards in the way that they source, develop, and manufacture food products. That will inevitably bring increased costs to manufacturers, which will no doubt have to flow on to consumers. But how much is a human life worth? The Māori Party will always vote in balance for human life, over and above issues of fiscal cost. We understand the risks of particular chemical contaminants arising from the production processes of some nations, or indeed from post-harvest or post-fumigation treatments.

This House may not be aware of recent research from Otago University, which revealed that several traditional Māori food plants are rich potential sources of cancer-fighting antioxidants. A study of 17 native plant species found that some native plants have an extraordinary potential to scavenge free radicals, which are implicated in cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative conditions. The study provides some exciting insights into why, perhaps, pre-European Māori appeared to have low levels of non-infectious diseases.

The Māori Party believes that consumers have the right to know the derivation of GM ingredients in food products and the right to know the life-enhancing potential that is evident in pūhā, rewarewa, tītoki, and swamp maire. We support the bill, in the interests of a future GE-free Aotearoa.

WilkinsonKATE WILKINSON (National) Link to this

National will not be supporting the Consumers Right to Know (Food Information) Bill, not because we do not believe that the consumer has a right to know in relation to food labelling but because New Zealand’s food standards and law already provide a comprehensive labelling and information system. I support totally accurate and informative labelling. As a person who has always had a food allergy, labelling is particularly important to me, but labelling should be science based and evidence based, ensuring proper food safety, rather than emotion based.

The bill requires country-of-origin labelling, but already we must provide on labels the company’s name and address, and we have an 0800 consumer line for any inquiries. Furthermore, in the bill, interestingly enough, if there is more than one ingredient, it is sufficient to have a statement to the effect that the food is made from ingredients imported into the country or from local and imported ingredients. So we are none the wiser as to where the food came from in the first place. It is absolutely meaningless to say food is made from ingredients imported into the country or from local and imported ingredients. It is also a costly exercise, and that cost would be handed down to consumers. But for what benefit?

How do the provisions of this country-of-origin labelling measure actually satisfy the demands of consumers who insist that they have a right to know where their food comes from? They do not. Yet if it is truly important for a consumer, for example, to buy only New Zealand pork, then the consumer should not buy pork that is not labelled as being New Zealand pork. The consumer has the choice of what pork to buy and what pork not to buy, and the consumer has the right to ask where the pork comes from. If consumers are misled, they have remedies available under the Fair Trading Act. We do not need to have a duplication of laws.

There is provision in the bill for food derived from GM or containing an ingredient derived from GM to be labelled as such, lowering the threshold from the current 1 percent to 0.5 percent. The honourable member Sue Kedgley has conceded that, firstly, no manufacturer can guarantee any product as GM-free, and, secondly, she would consider increasing the threshold to 1 percent, anyway. We already have a 1 percent threshold, and it is mischievous for Mrs Kedgley to ask lobbyists to confirm that they want to know whether there is any GE ingredient in food, when she knows full well that that is unrealistic and she herself concedes that no manufacturer can guarantee any product as being GE-free.

The bill also deals with the labelling of eggs, requiring that they be labelled as coming from free-range, barn-raised, or caged hens. I know that many people will not buy eggs produced by battery hens, and certainly that is their choice. Others do not care, and some believe that free-range eggs are not as safe or as hygienic as eggs from battery hens. Whatever side of the argument one takes, it is surely a simple matter for those producers who have free-range eggs to label them as such, market them as such, and sell them as such, and consumers can then duly make their choice.

We are certainly against the mislabelling of food and certainly in favour of high food-safety standards, but we have the existing protections already in place. We have the Fair Trading Act, which prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct. We have the Food Act and the Food Standards Code. We have the remedies. We are not against proper labelling—we have it. We are not against consumers’ right to know what is in their food, but we have that too. What we are against is unnecessary, unworkable legislation that would impose unnecessary costs on consumers. That is exactly what this bill would do. Our objection is not about taking away consumers’ right to ask or about taking away their right to choose. It is about being sensible, and not imposing unnecessary costs on consumers because of an idealistic viewpoint.

We oppose this bill. It is not in the best interests of consumers, at all. It would be an extra cost, an extra burden, on them. Consumers do have the right to know. They already have it: they have the right to ask, and they have the right to decline any product that they are not certain about. National will not be supporting the bill.

LockeKEITH LOCKE (Green) Link to this

Maryan Street said not to worry; that labelling already exists, although there are some problems with reading labels. Surely if labelling exists on products, which it does on many of them, it is not too difficult to add the country of origin. That is a very simple thing, and the idea that somehow it is damaging to New Zealand’s interests is quite false. It may be true that if New Zealand labels some of its exports “Made in New Zealand” some consumers in America might prefer the local product. Well, that is their choice. Surely it is just an extra motivation to our exporters to get our food standards to a high quality, to have good organic produce free of chemicals, and all that sort of thing, because it will make it more attractive to the discerning consumer who is choosing, partly, on the basis of country of origin.

The idea that it will cost a huge amount to put labels on food is absurd, I think. We are not saying that there has to be a sticker on every little kiwifruit. One of the problems is that sometimes food is over-labelled in that sense, but we at least need the bins to state where the product comes from. That is not too difficult for supermarkets and shops to do. In fact it is important for supermarkets, if they want to keep good quality products and make sure they are promoting the best producers, to have a traceability system and a labelling system so that everyone—from consumer back to supplier—knows which country the product comes from.

Maryan Street said that labelling was problematic because with some of the labels it is difficult to work out the chemicals, and so on. That is just a challenge to Governments to improve that aspect. But the point—and this is where Maryan Street misses out—is that it is not a question of trusting the State to get it right, and the State will make sure that everything we consume is nice and fresh, and perfectly healthy, etc. The bill is about the consumer’s right to know; the right of the people themselves to determine what might be the best food for them to eat, and to judge for themselves if it comes from a country that uses too many chemicals on its tomatoes. They might say the Australians use too many chemicals or the wrong chemicals on their tomatoes, which is what Sue Kedgley said in her speech on the first reading. They might say we want to eat New Zealand tomatoes. It is the right of the consumer to choose. In fact, in Australia they have that right. It is so bad that our Government is dissociating itself from the joint food standard with Australia, when Australia has that food labelling and we do not. The Green Party, through Sue Kedgley, got information under the Official Information Act that says the decision to dissociate ourselves from Australia, from the joint food standard on country-of-origin labelling, was made in secret and without consultation with any political party in this Parliament or any debate in the House.

The Cabinet paper, disclosed under the Official Information Act, said that New Zealand is moving to veto the joint approach of mandatory country-of-origin labelling of food, without consultation. It actually said that in making the decision, one did not need consultation—“consultation is not required with Government caucuses or other parties represented in Parliament”.

This really is Muldoonism. It is executive decision-making without any consultation. It is also a bit like Roger Douglas, who said: “Don’t worry about public opinion, just do it.” It is not what should happen in an MMP Parliament, particularly when we have a history of minority Governments. The whole concept of MMP is to incorporate the whole Parliament and all parties in decision making in order to have educated debates.

How can we properly choose what foods to eat? There has been talk about pork. When going through supermarkets I have not seen pork labelled as being from overseas. We just do not see it and we are not able to make a choice as to what country’s pork we want. It is a basic democratic right to be able to decide for ourselves. We could decide on either side. For example, garlic comes in from China. Some people may love buying Chinese garlic but they cannot find out whether it is from China. Most people might say that they want to support their local garlic producers rather than consuming Chinese garlic. People should have an equal right to choose.

TurnerJUDY TURNER (Deputy Leader—United Future) Link to this

I rise on behalf of United Future to say that we will support the first reading of the Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill, although we do so with some serious reservations. Sue Kedgley has been a very strong and passionate advocate for this issue during the whole time I have known her here in Parliament. I also know that a lot of other people are really keen to see how viable it is to have information around GM foods, and the discussion should be had. However, one concern we do have is how realistic it is.

I was talking to somebody the other day who advocates for the food industry. He was in my office about quite a different matter, but I asked for his input. One of the examples he gave me was of a company he knows that packages sun-dried tomatoes. The product was imported from somewhere in South America, although I cannot remember which country he told me it was. He said that the problem the company had was that if there was a drought, or the climate was unfavourable, it would need to source the product from somewhere else to continue to supply its markets, and at that point for the company, having registered its product, the whole system would fall over quite badly in terms of how it would manage the costs.

I am a reader of labels on the back of products in the supermarket, and I appreciate the amount of information I am given. My first response is that I feel I get sufficient information, but I think it is a growing thing and that people are becoming more and more interested in picking up something off the shelf and checking the back for a few minutes to see what is in it. So I do not see that there is any harm in having a discussion at a select committee, listening to submitters—to those who are involved in the food industry and to consumer groups—and hearing what they have to say. My concern is that it is unrealistic, but we may be able to problem-solve around that and find ways forward to learn what made it workable in other countries and what particular concerns there are for our own New Zealand food industry. There are a whole lot of questions that could well be answered very successfully. Compromises could be reached to the benefit of everybody. So United Future is very happy for that discussion to be had and we are happy to support the first reading.

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY (Green) Link to this

The Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill has overwhelming support from the vast majority of New Zealanders, who want better labelling of their food. The bill should be supported by every party in this House because it is about the basic, democratic right of New Zealanders to know what is in the food we are eating and where it comes from. I thank the Māori Party, ACT, New Zealand First, and United Future for listening to ordinary New Zealand consumers and supporting this bill. And I thank the 4,000 New Zealanders who have sent emails and postcards to MPs imploring them to vote for the bill. Some have started petitions for the bill and others have even staged a protest in support of it. I also thank the 25 organisations that have come out in support of the bill, ranging from Parents Centres New Zealand to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Rarely has a member’s bill had so much support from ordinary New Zealanders, because it actually addresses something that really bothers consumers every time they shop for food—namely, the lack of any information on a label to tell them whether the food they are buying contains GE ingredients or where most of it comes from. Some MPs may not do the shopping or push trolleys around the supermarket, so they may not realise just how important this issue is for ordinary consumers or realise the growing concerns consumers have about the safety of our food and the way it is produced, which is why consumers want labels to tell them what they are eating and where it comes from.

Maryan Street said that we do not need better labelling because all of our food is safe. But GE ingredients have never undergone any safety testing, so how do we know they are safe? If GE ingredients have not undergone safety testing, surely we should at least be able to figure out where they are so we can avoid those foods that contain them if we consider them unsafe. And if we are going to encourage container-loads of meat to be imported into New Zealand, in a world awash with bovine spongiform encephalopathy and avian flu, surely we have a right to know where all that meat ends up and whether the meat we are buying comes from New Zealand or China.

New Zealand is being left way behind in our labelling laws. Most Western countries already have mandatory labelling of all GE ingredients in food and mandatory country-of-origin labelling. Many countries already require eggs to be labelled as to whether they come from caged, free-range, or barn-raised hens. The only reason we do not already have country-of-origin labelling is because our Government decided—in secret, in classic Muldoon style, without any debate or even consultation with any member of Parliament, other than those in Cabinet—to veto a joint standard that would have made country-of-origin labelling compulsory in New Zealand. As Barbara Stewart said, we have it for our footwear and clothing. Surely it is more important that we know where the food we put into our bodies comes from than where our jandals and T-shirts come from.

National tried to justify its opposition by saying that the labelling would impose overwhelming compliance costs on industry. What utter twaddle! The GE labelling provisions would apply to only the dozen or so food producers in New Zealand who have not already removed GE ingredients from their food. And there is virtually no cost to install country-of-origin labelling or to provide labelling on egg cartons. The country-of-origin provisions exist in Australia, so that argument will not wash.

It speaks volumes about the contempt that the two major parties have towards ordinary consumers, that they would deny something as simple and as fundamental as consumers’ right to know what is in food and where it comes from. It shows how totally out of touch they are with the concerns of mainstream New Zealand and how they will always put the interests of food producers ahead of the interests of consumers. Maryan Street said that we cannot have country-of-origin labelling in New Zealand because it would be unhelpful to a couple of our companies internationally. How outrageous! The interests of a couple of exporters come way ahead of the interests of consumers! How bizarre that a Labour Party, which claims to be democratic, is acting so arrogantly. How bizarre that the National Party, which says its core values are about individual freedom and responsibility, is opposing a bill that is all about giving individuals the freedom to choose through proper food labelling. New Zealand consumers will remember which two parties denied them the right to better labelling of their food. I will make sure of that.

I seek leave to table a postcard from Jill Turner Lloyd, which states: “The right to know and choose is crucial for our freedom as individuals in this society.”

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY Link to this

I seek leave to table a postcard from Charlotte Minson, which states: “It is a basic right of consumers to know what we are putting in our bodies.”

HartleyThe ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Ann Hartley) Link to this

How many more are there?

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY Link to this

I want to table several hundred, but I wanted to read just three or four.

HartleyThe ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Ann Hartley) Link to this

I am sorry, but the time has come for the dinner break. I will resume the Chair at 7.30 p.m.

Sitting suspended from 6 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.

HartleyThe ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Ann Hartley) Link to this

Before the dinner break we were just about to vote on the Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill. The debate had finished.

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY (Green) Link to this

I seek leave to table a postcard from Fenja Jones in Nelson, who, as a consumer, says: “I want to know which country my food comes from, whether it contains GE ingredients, and whether eggs have come from hens that have been kept in cages.”

HartleyThe ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Ann Hartley) Link to this

I ask the member how many documents she is going to table.

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY Link to this

I have several hundred here to table, but I will just table one more, specifically, here—

HartleyThe ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Ann Hartley) Link to this

I say to the member that to do that would be an abuse of the process of the House. This is members’ night, your bill has been debated, and other members are entitled to—

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY Link to this

I said I wanted to table one more. I do not think that is an abuse of the Standing Orders.

HartleyThe ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Ann Hartley) Link to this

One more? Well, it would be if there were 200 to 300.

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY Link to this

No, no. I said I will be tabling 200 to 300, and I would specifically table one more.

HartleyThe ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Ann Hartley) Link to this

But not individually?

KedgleySUE KEDGLEY Link to this

No, that is right. I am sorry; I did not make myself clear. I would like to table a card from Mr Wells, who says: “As a consumer I want to know: whether my food contains GE ingredients or not, whether eggs have come from hens that have been kept in cages, and which country my food comes from,”, and he continues: “because better labelling means more informed choices.”

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

SUE KEDGLEY: Finally, I would like to table these several hundred postcards from consumers, all of whom say they believe that it is the basic right of individuals to have informed choice about the food they are going to purchase.

Documents, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Link to this

A party vote was called for on the question,

That the Consumer’s Right to Know (Food Information) Bill be now read a first time.

Ayes 20

Noes 99

Motion not agreed to.


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