19 May 2005, 04:50:19 PM

Reporter: Helen Wellings

Australia grows, arguably, the best produce in the world, but in the past 5 years, imports of fruits and vegies have risen alarmingly. In fact, some of our vegies have been almost eroded by imports, and more and more growers, family businesses, are going out of business.

Vegies and fruit from China, India, South America, Phillipines are very cheap, so retailers and supermarkets will bring them in in increasing amounts. Trouble is, imported produce is not subject to the same strict practices and tests as our home grown products. We show shocking farm practices in China, fresh human faeces from toilet blocks used as fertiliser, chemicals applied liberally from back packs, dangerous pesticide residues like DDT and other organochlorines on imported fruit and vegies in Australia - cancer-causing chemicals that have been banned in Australia for decades. Just to twist the knife further, the government is planning to water down Country of Origin labelling, so we consumers won't know where produce comes from. How convenient for the supermarket's new Own Labels!

Where do our fruit and vegetables come from?

Says spokesman for Australian vegetable producers, Euan Laird, "Walk into any supermarket and you see produce there is not clearly labelled as to whether it is grown here or imported from overseas."

How much is imported?

"20% of food products come in from China at this stage," declares Queensland vegetable farmer, Howard Poole.

And just how clean and green are fruit and vegies in the shops?

Euan Laird again, "Traces of chemicals that have been banned in Australia are being found on imported on imported produce ... We should not expose consumers to these dangerous chemicals."

Aussie-grown fruit and vegetables are known to be among the best in the world, but an invasion of overseas produce into our shops is threatening to take over. Tasmanian vegie grower, Michael Badcock, says the new global economy and the advent of free trade agreements are killing our local market.

"I believe we will lose our industry here and the Australian consumer will be eating products that we can grow here but they will be coming from overseas."

"We've seen in the last 4 yrs a 40% increase in imports of frozen vegies and a 26% increase in fresh imports," adds Euan Laird of AusVeg, Australian Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation. He's seen 900 growers, all family businesses, go bust lately .. and that's just the start, all because of falling exports and rising imports.

"We've had a 7000% increase in asparagus imports in the past 12 months, a 25% increase in garlic being imported into Australia ... frozen potatoes, substantial increases."

Just listen to the figures!

  • Garlic .. a staggering 95% of it in our shops is imported, mostly from China, yet it can be sourced all year round in Australia.

  • Asparagus, around 50% is now imported.

  • Green peas 25%.

  • Onions and shallots, 20%.

  • Peanuts 15% to 20% are imported, but in supermarkets 40% of the shelf stock are imports.

Frozen vegies .. we now import over $100 million worth a year, mainly sweet corn, peas, beans and spinach.

Howard Poole stresses, "Vegetable production is a hands on thing. It absorbs a lot of labour. In China wages are around $2 and less a day, or they work for a bed and a feed. How can we compete against that."

Howard Poole says the biggest problem with a lot of imports, especially from some parts of China, is very dodgy and dangerous practices. He's regularly travelled to China and has seen first-hand these sub-standard habits.

"The common practices in China is to use any sort of organic waste, this includes human waste, pig waste, chicken manure," he says.

Pictures we show on Today Tonight will shock, but the facts need to be told! We see untreated human excrement from farm's toilet blocks which is used as fertiliser on hectares of vegetables - cauliflower, celery, cabbages, all sorts of vegies grown for export.

Euan Laird says, "I guess consumers have to ask themselves whether they would eat produce fertilised with human waste. That's been outlawed in Australia for centuries, yet they're still using those practices overseas. And that's the fundamental question, how safe is this food coming in?"

"Chinese farmers still use chemicals that have been outlawed in the Western world over the years," indicates Howard Poole.

That's another shocking revelation! We show dangerous carcinogenic chemicals being used in vegetable and peanut farming in China and some other countries. These chemicals were banned in Australia decades ago because they accumulate in the body and cause serious illness and death.

Euan Laird again, "We have clear evidence to show some of the imported produce coming in has traces of dieldren, DDT, various organochlorines, all sorts of pesticides. So if those products are being used overseas and they come into Australia we're exposing our consumers to potential risk and harm."

Kingaroy's Bob Hansen of the Peanut Association of Australia says imported peanuts can be high risk.

"A number of these contaminants such as organochlorides, heavy metals, aflatoxin - they are quite detrimental to health in a number of ways and we ensure they're not in our Aussie products".

The same dangers exist with some imported dried vegies, fruit and herbs. A confidential report by the Department of Primary Industries reveals 16 out of 50 dried products tested, that's 1 out of 3, contain chemical residues including DDT, Deildren and other cancer-causing organochlorines. Also many had traces of foreign seeds, fungi, bacteria and viruses that could introduce exotic diseases into Australia.

Howard Poole, looking at photos of Chinese vegetable farmers with chemical packs their back, says "They certainly don't understand how to use chemicals and when to use them and when not to use them, and at the end of the day the product could be contaminated with high level of chemicals."

"In Australia, our machinery delivers a very accurate dose and there is only the minimal amount of chemical possible to achieve the desired result, " says Euan Laird, as he points to a machine delivering a very fine measured spray of pesticide recommended as safe under our regulated food standards.

But, unbelievably, imported foods don't have to meet the same strict food safety Standards as our locally grown foods.

Aussie produce is government-tested for 61 chemicals, but imported produce is tested by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Services for a mere 25 chemicals. And only 5% of containers {1 in 20} coming into the country are checked.

But the worst thing? Those tests don't even screen imports for the real dangers - DDT, Deildren, heavy metals and faecal coliforms like human waste.

Euan Laird says, "They are going the lowest common denominator in some of this testing, forcing regulations on our own growers, but not complying other trading partners to meet the same standards."

And here's the crunch! Just when Aussie farmers are being wiped out by imports, our food authority is planning to water down Country Of Origin labelling on unpackaged produce. Proposals would mean retailers don't have to tell shoppers that food is imported, unless we specifically ask a salesperson!

But with strong objections from the public and Aussie growers, and the fear of terrorist contamination on foods from overseas, Dean Stockwell of Food Standards Australia New Zealand tells us the Authority is now backing down.

"The feedback we're getting is that the proposal is not realistic for many of the consumers and producers so we're looking very hard to make sure the proposal is reworked."

"We need imported produce to be clearly labelled so consumers can make an informed decision about the produce they're buying," warns Euan Laird.