Growers back berry controls

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

WA berry growers big and small have backed tighter controls on imports and stronger labelling laws in the wake of the hepatitis A outbreak.

The growers said one positive to come out of the scandal over tainted berry imports was that it would encourage consumers to buy WA produce.

Berry growers said local produce was subject to strict quality control and monitoring.

They said the same standards did not apply to imported fruit, particularly frozen products like those behind the spate of infections.

Mt Barker Blueberry Company, which is part of the West Cape Howe Wines estate, said it used WA's Buy West Eat Best brand on its packaging to highlight

the clean and green origin of the fruit.

"We use it on our labelling so it is identified as grown and produced in WA," vineyard manager Grant Lubcke said. "We hope people notice that and realise that we aim to get fresh fruit on the table as soon as we can."

The company has emerged as WA's biggest blueberry producer over the past five years.

It has 20,000 trees spread over about 8ha.

It hand-picked about 12 tonnes this season, with most of the blueberries going into Coles supermarkets.

The trees are expected to produce up to 60 tonnes a year as they mature.

Mr Lubcke said that as well as concerns about the testing of imports, there was alarm about food produced in one country being rebranded in others before finding its way into Australia.

Raspberry grower Sheelagh Marshall said Australia set the bar for safe food production much higher than many importing countries.

"We go through huge amounts of quality assurance and MLR (maximum level residue) testing," she said.

Mrs Marshall said customers buying direct from the family's Torbay farm over the past few days had been aware of the health problems causes by frozen berries from China.

"A few people have been in to get our berries for their smoothies," she said.

Mrs Marshall and her husband Phillip have been niche producers of raspberries since the late 1980s as a sideline to their cattle operations and commercial asparagus growing.

Industry bodies have welcomed comments from Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce on the importance of country-of- origin labelling for produce coming into Australia.

Consumer advocacy group Choice has launched an online petition calling on the Federal Government to introduce strong labelling laws.

AUSVEG chief executive Richard Mulcahy said: "The massive ambiguity that exists with current labelling must be put to an end to give consumers a proper choice when it comes to purchasing food."

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