The widespread coverage of outbreaks of Hepatitis A in all eastern States and now in WA, linked to faecal contamination of frozen raspberries packaged in China, has proven a boon for Australian producers, with a surge in demand for local produce.
As someone who has been writing and speaking about the benefits of local food economies for many years, and warning about the risks and downsides of an increasingly globalised food system, these events feel like vindication.
The tragedy of course is that a number of individuals – and there will likely be many more – have had to suffer in order to raise these issues to the top of the political agenda.
That is unfortunately so often the case, however. Until something becomes a ‘media storm’, politicians see no need to act.
In this instance – as in just about everything else connected with our globalised food system – many people have been suffering for a long time. We just don’t get to hear about the near-Dickensian conditions of the largely female and indigenous farm workers in Chile who pick the fruit, or the factory workers in China who pack it. That’s not ‘news’.
Rather, their low wages and precarious working and life conditions are merely ‘factors of production’ that show up as a column of numbers in the balance sheets of the agri-business corporations that call the shots in the globalised food and farming system.
And their cheap labour is essential to keeping prices ‘Down! Down!’ and ‘Cheap! Cheap!’ at the supermarket checkouts.
The price of an item like frozen imported berries conceals so much.
As does the label, for that matter. In the wake of these outbreaks, much of the emphasis has been on improved labeling requirements and ensuring stricter safety standards, including more tests of imported produce.
Both would be a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, claims that this outbreak boosts the ‘clean, green image’ of Australian produce need to be made with a little bit of humility. While our food handling and safety standards are certainly stringent, what about the use of chemicals in production?
The US Environmental Working Group releases an annual list of a ‘Dirty Dozen’ foods, that US Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program tests reveal have an unacceptably high level of chemical residues.
These tests have shown that conventionally-produced blueberries – a major crop on the Coffs Coast – have residues of up to 52 chemicals, including 8 carcinogens, 14 neurotoxins and 17 bee toxins. While this data relates to US production, what do we really know about chemical residues on our local produce? What would a ‘Made in Australia’ label tell us about potential risks to human and environmental health?
Then there is the whole can of worms that is the free trade agenda, which I’ve written about many times before. In a globalised system that is all about driving down costs and boosting production – and that’s true both here and elsewhere – human and environmental well-being are always going to be secondary priorities.
Ultimately this is the conversation that we as a society need to be mature enough to confront. The ‘cheap food’ paradigm is essential to a growth-based consumer economy. Why? Because keeping food cheap means consumers can devote more of their income to servicing debt to banks, and on discretionary purchases.
Tackling that conundrum is going to be really tough, because we all want to have our cake and eat it. Most of us haven’t grown up in an era of sacrifice and hardship. But the chill winds of austerity are blowing ever harder.
My view is that we can enjoy rich and fulfilling lives, while supporting our local producers, and helping them to produce really clean and green food. But we will need to break out of this paradigm of cheap food, and growth-and-production at all costs, to get there