The “open for business” government that is committed to slashing red tape has just bought itself an almighty fight with the food manufacturing industry with the announcement this morning of plans for significantly stronger food labelling laws.

It’s only a few days since the Prime Minister’s reaction to the discovery of Hepatitis-A in imported berries was decidedly laissez-faire — it should be up to businesses not to poison their customers, additional regulation would lead to higher costs for consumers, etc. Today Abbott is talking about requiring food manufacturers to provide a graphic illustrating what proportion of a product is imported.

The level of imported produce in locally manufactured food changes constantly, due to the inconveniently seasonal nature of food growth. Food manufacturers, taken by surprise by the announcement, have already flagged that the need to constantly change labels to accurately reflect the proportion of imported contents will impose significant costs. It’s all very different from the Howard government, which bent over backwards to thwart efforts to change food labelling requirements.

Ensuring consumers are better informed about the products they’re buying is always a good idea. What a pity the government has a very selective view on the issue: under political pressure over contaminated berries, the government is happy to impose additional red tape and higher costs on the food industry. But on financial advice, to take one example, in the face of constant evidence of a corrupt industry and a useless regulator, the government is obsessed with stripping away protections and “red tape” ensuring consumers are better informed.

Like its current war against foreign investment, it’s another example of how a government that began life trying to live up to a hardline economic ideology has taken a severe turn to populism under political pressure.

Peter Fray

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