Consumers may not end up with the clearest country of origin food-labelling standards because of a potential conflict of interest in the Abbott government's taskforce working on proposed changes.
In the wake of the hepatitis A outbreak linked with foreign frozen berries last month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a ministerial taskforce would deliver a proposal to overhaul food labelling laws by the end of March.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the inclusion of Trade Minister Andrew Robb, who is in the final stages of negotiating the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), was to the detriment of consumers.
"If you want country-of-origin labelling that supports local producers or promotes Australian produce or require stricter disclosure laws from foreign countries, putting Andrew Robb in that taskforce is like putting a fox in the hen house," he said.
"It's not in his interest to have stricter country of origin labelling laws because it will interfere with his trade deals. He would see stronger country of origin labelling as barriers to trade."
Mr Whish-Wilson, who is on the joint standing committee on treaties, said new labelling laws must be passed before the TPP is signed, because afterwards, under the investor state dispute settlement clause (ISDS), a foreign company could sue the government if changes to legislation harmed its profits.
Mr Robb has been criticised by consumer advocacy, business and medical groups for conducting TPP negotiations in secret. Earlier this month Mr Robb said the deal, which involves 12 countries and covers 40 per cent of the world's economy, could be sealed within weeks.
Mr Robb labelled the conflict of interest claims as "simply ridiculous". He argued that as Trade Minister he should be part of the taskforce to help ensure any proposal aligned with the government's World Trade Organization obligations.
"[My] priority through trade negotiations was to advance Australia's interests, not undermine them, this includes ensuring we maintain the right to regulate in the public's interest in areas such as health," he told Fairfax Media.
On ABC's 7.30 last week he said: "The ISDS is there to give investors protection in those markets where we don't understand the legal system; where the legal system may not, you know, be as fair as we think it should be."
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, in response to conflict of interest concerns, said: "I don't think we have concerns there."
Michael Moore, chief executive of the Public Health Association, urged Mr Robb to release the wording of the TPP to clear up the confusion.
"Also, if Andrew Robb wants to reassure the TPP leaves us nothing to worry about, he should make a categorical statement that there will be a public health exemption. It would remove any doubt about country of origin labelling."
Dr Patricia Ranald, co-ordinator of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, said country of origin labelling contradicted the general rules for free trade agreements, and that was the reason why Mr Robb was heavily involved.
"If minister Robb wants to have a safe food labelling regime, he should not have agreed to the inclusion of ISDS in the Korea FTA and the China FTA, and should not agree to it in the TPP," she said.
"ISDS exceptions for health and environment laws have not proven effective because they do not prevent companies from launching cases.
Sources in Canberra say that while Mr Joyce has acted as the public face of the latest labelling reforms, Mr Robb and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane were the most active behind the scenes.
Mr Joyce said country of origin labelling should be simple, compulsory, diagrammatical and show proportionality as to where the product is sourced from.
"I've never believed that honesty should be taken as a reason not to do something. We're asking for honesty in labelling, because what we've got at the moment is dishonest," he said.
A spokeswoman for Mr Macfarlane said: "The government will work with industry to ensure country of origin labelling policy is compliant with international trade rules, while also providing consumers with the information they need to make informed choices at the supermarket."
The other ministers in the taskforce are Small Business Minister Bruce Billson and Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash.
UPDATED: The article has been updated to include comments from Trade Minister Andrew Robb on Wednesday, received a day after deadline.