By Nathan Davies
Australia, June 5, 2017
SOUTH Australian seafood, there’s nothing like it.
Tucking into a fisherman’s basket on the foreshore is a Croweater’s birthright — but do we really know what we’re eating?
That delicious battered flathead could actually be a piece of Argentinian stick fish, the prawns could be from a farm on the Mekong River, the squid rings are likely from Thailand and even your iconic barramundi is probably from Asia.
Despite a concerted push from Australian fishers, conservation groups, celebrities such as TV foodie Matthew Evans and politicians including South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, there’s still no requirement for restaurants and takeaway shops to tell you where your cooked fish comes from. This runs counter to recent legislation forcing supermarkets and other retailers to reveal exactly how Australian their products are.
Fresh fish retailers around the country are required to label the origin of their products, but the Northern Territory is the only region to expand the law to include cooked products, introducing the practice in 2008.
Senator Xenophon teamed up with the Greens’ Peter Whish-Wilson in 2015 to draft a Bill that would make seafood labelling mandatory, but it was rejected after both major parties united to defeat the proposal. Restaurant and catering groups have been outspoken in rejecting any move towards introducing the laws, claiming they would be unwieldy and expensive.
The Bill was rejected with a promise that the issue would be examined more closely and findings delivered at the end of 2017. However, Senator Xenophon said progress had been frustratingly slow.
In a Senate Estimates Hearing last week Senator Xenophon asked a number of questions regarding the progress of any inquiries, only to be told by a Department of Industry spokesman that his questions would be taken on notice and answered at a later date.
“There’s something fishy going on here,” Senator Xenophon said.
“Who have they consulted? They couldn’t tell me. This really is a no-brainer. If something this simple is taking so long then it’s little wonder that people are losing faith in politicians.” Senator Xenophon said consumers were overwhelmingly in favour of knowing where their food came from.
“This is not a radical proposal,” he said.
“Who’s lobbying against this? Is it the importers? This is a proposal that could create thousands of jobs and people are dragging their feet.”
Senator Xenophon said claims from restaurants that labelling laws would mean expensive changes to their menus were spurious.
“Look, if this is made law I will personally buy 100 blackboards and 100 boxes of chalk to donate to restaurants,” he said.
Senator Xenophon’s sentiments were echoed by TV foodie Matthew Evans, who has been a long-time proponent of the changes. Mr Evans, who also runs a farm and cooking school south of Hobart, said he would love to see South Australia and Tasmania take the lead on labelling laws.
“They’re two states with strong fishing industries that could lead the way on this,” Mr Evans said.
“We do a shocking job of labelling our seafood. You can’t go into a takeaway shop and order a ‘mammal burger’ — it’s going to say beef or pork or whatever. But you can order a fish burger, despite the fact that we catch hundreds of species of fish in Australia alone.”
Mr Evans said Australian fishers were bound by extremely strict rules on quota and seasons aimed at ensuring our fisheries were sustainable, but overseas companies often operated outside of these rules.
“They (retailers) are relying on the credentials and good name of Aussie fishers,” he said.
“There’s absolutely no good reason not to tell people where their fish are coming from, unless you have something to hide. Some people might say, ‘I don’t care about sustainability, or mercury levels, or human trafficking — I’m happy with the quality of this product and happy with the price’. Others may not. At the moment you can’t make that choice.”
Restaurant and Catering South Australia chief executive officer Sally Neville said any move to mandate seafood labelling laws would bury restaurant owners in piles of red tape.
“We’re opposed to the idea of mandatory labelling,” Ms Neville said.
“Many restaurants already say where their seafood comes from, but we strongly believe that it should be up to the individual venues.”
Ms Neville said large venues such as sporting venues and convention centres often set their menus “years in advance”, and that labelling laws would make this very difficult.
“Big function venues, such as convention centres, set their menus years in advance. They’re locked in, and this would only complicate the issue for them.”
Ms Neville said many restaurants already labelled the origin of their fish dishes, and that diners could seek these establishments out if they wanted to.
“Consumers will shop with their feet, and if they want to know exactly where their seafood comes from then they will go to restaurants that give that information,” she said.
Ms Neville rejected the suggestion that the introduction of labelling laws in the Northern Territory had been a success.
“There was an idea that it would increase consumption of local seafood, but that hasn’t turned out to be the case.”
For Port Adelaide seafood retailer Stavros Parissos the choice is obvious — Aussie seafood all the way.
Mr Parissos, who runs Parissos Seafood with his father, Theo, said about 95 per cent of the fish he sold in his shop was Australian.
“I think it’s fair that the customer should know what they’re paying for,” he said. Mr Parissos said the price gap between imported and local seafood was rapidly closing as demand for fish increased around the world.