Principal Executive Officer, Food Standards Policy Section, Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. Canberra, ACT 2600
By way of background, it would be useful to outline the functions of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). AQIS has played a major role in the development of the National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce which is underpinned by certification. The National Standard is now a prerequisite for exports of organic produce and domestic regulations are being considered.
The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service
The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service is responsible for food inspection and certification for most exported food products and some related products such as live animals, plants and plant products. Our overseas trading partners also apply strict quarantine and food safety controls to imported products. Where necessary, AQIS provides mandatory government certification attesting that products meet these requirements to enable Australian exports to enter overseas markets.
Food inspection and certification systems are used to ensure that foods for domestic consumption or export meet relevant standards in order to protect consumers against food-borne hazards and deceptive marketing practices, and also to facilitate trade on the basis of accurate product description.
Inspection and certification systems are fundamentally important and very widely used as a means of food control. Their use makes possible a substantial part of the worldwide trade in food, for example in meat and meat products. However, inspection and certification requirements may significantly impede international trade in foodstuffs. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service negotiates with governments to ensure access is maintained to overseas markets.
The inspection and certification systems which are in place in this country to ensure that our products meet importing country requirements are paramount to those negotiations.
Whether AQIS is negotiating with a trading country for the import of organic produce or produce from conventional agriculture, Australia's greatest bargaining power is the fact that our production systems have generally used far less inputs of agricultural and veterinary chemicals than those in other countries.
Organic Agriculture - a definition
Organic agriculture is a farm management system which entails significant restrictions on the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Organic farming has much in common with sustainable agriculture in that it aims to protect the environment and to nurture and maintain the land for future generations.
The same emphasis is placed on renewable resources, the need for conservation of energy, soil and water resources and the maintenance of environmental quality. The production cycle is as closed as possible and the use of synthetic chemicals is totally restricted.
In themselves, organic practices will not ensure that products are completely free of residues of agricultural chemicals and other contaminants. It is accepted that pollution from the air, soil, water and other sources is sometimes beyond the control of the producer.
AQIS became aware of the niche market opportunities for organic products in 1988. The significant events that followed included:
• December 1988: AQIS presented a paper on the "Increasing World Demand for Organically Grown Food" to Minister John Kerin's peak policy advisory body, the Primary and Allied Industries Council (PAIC).
• February 1989: When opening the first Australia-New Zealand Ecological Agricultural Conference in Brisbane, Minister Kerin urged the organic farming industry to work together to develop national standards. At that time there were three national industry organisations each working through its own set of standards.
• December 1989: AQIS presented a further paper to PAIC on a "National Approach to Certification for Organically Grown Produce". This paper identified confusion on the part of domestic consumers and difficulties for the Commonwealth in terms of providing uniform and formal recognition of products as 'organically grown in Australia'.
• February 1990: Minister Kerin invited representatives from the then three national organic industry organisations to a meeting to establish the Organic Produce Advisory Committee (OPAC). Also at that meeting were representatives from the National Farmers' Federation, the Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations, the Federal Bureau of Consumer Affairs and the Standing Committee on Agriculture.
• OPAC's terms of reference include the development of a national standard for organic and bio-dynamic produce and the provision of policy advice on industry matters to the Minister and the Department. AQIS provides the chairman and secretariat for OPAC.
• July 1990: Minister Kerin released a study into the "Market for Australian Organic Produce", which was undertaken by Hassall and Associates. This study concluded that the organic industry and consumers would benefit from appropriate domestic controls including the implementation of a National Standard. It also forecast an increase in organic production from 1% of total agriculture in 1990 to up to 10% by the end of the decade.
• January 1991: OPAC circulated widely for public comment a draft National Standard.
• November 1991: OPAC finalised the draft National Standard and submitted it to Minister Crean.
• February 1992: Minister Crean accepted the draft National Standard prepared by OPAC. In officially releasing it on 10 February in Adelaide he stated that it would immediately be required for organic produce exported from Australia. It is pleasing to note that this was probably the first nationally agreed standard for organic agriculture outside of the EC.
A Standard for organically produced agricultural products differs from standards for other agricultural produce in that production procedures are an intrinsic part of the identification and labelling of, and claims for, such products.
The National Standard lays down minimum principles which should be complied with before agricultural products and foods can be placed on the market with labelling which states or implies that they have been produced by organic farming systems.
The Standard aims to:
1. protect consumers against deception and fraud in the market place and unsubstantiated product claims;
2. protect producers of organic produce against misrepresentation of other agricultural produce as being organic;
3. harmonise national provisions for the production, certification, identification and labellilng of organic produce;
4. ensure that all stages of production, processing and marketing are subject to inspection and meet minimum requirements; and
5. provide a guide to farmers contemplating conversion to organic farming.
Certification is an integral part of the National Standard as it will ensure that produce can be verified along the production and distribution chain. Monitoring compliance through regular inspection programs will provide product integrity and enhance consumer confidence in the final product.
Minimum inspection and certification requirements for the industry are set out in the Standard. It is worth noting that under the current climate of deregulation it has been found that industry can operate well under a system of self-regulation. For the present, AQIS has taken the approach that the responsibility for suitable certification schemes, including their development, implementation and management, can remain with the national industry organisations concerned.
The Standard also outlines:
- the principles of organic production at farm level;
- the permitted inputs for:
. soil fertilising and conditioning
. materials for plant and animal pest and disease control;
- the labelling requirements of organic produce.
Processing and packaging requirements are being developed, however these are yet to be finalised in the light of further international developments.
The National Standard has been aligned with the EC Regulation on Organic Production which was produced virtually in parallel with the Australian standard. Significantly, the EC represents a major potential market for organic produce.
Presently AQIS has an application with the EC for acceptance of Australia as an exporter of organic produce. This application is based on the certification and inspection requirements set down in the National Standard. We understand, unofficially, that Australia is one of only three countries which have managed to gain tentative recognition.
In conclusion, it is worth noting that although AQIS has no responsibility for domestic food standards, Minister Crean is well aware of confusion on the part of Australian consumers and retailers in regard to the labelling and identification of organic produce.
When releasing the National Standard he urged the National Food Authority to take a strong lead and use the national standard as the basis for domestic regulation in regard to the use of the term 'organic'. More recently, Minister Crean wrote to his colleague, Peter Staples, Minister for the Aged, Family and Health Services, requesting that the necessary steps are taken to ensure that regulatory controls on the domestic market parallel those implemented for exports.