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Imported foods past their expiry date, or not intended for sale outside their country of origin have been discovered routinely being sold across Australia, as uncovered as part of a special investigation by SBS Punjabi Radio.
Misleading labelling and the common practice of parallel imports mean that products that should not be for sale are readily available on Australian supermarket shelves.
What are parallel imports?
If you’ve ever purchased a product that looks identical to a well-known Australian brand name, but features non-English packaging, or is labelled for sale in another country; chances are you’ve purchased a parallel or "grey" import.
These are not actually counterfeit – but are the internationally-produced versions of a product intended for local domestic consumption, not for export. Yet they are sold and consumed in overseas markets, where they are imported without the permission of the local trademark holder there.
Such products may not be intended for sale in Australia, but easily fly under the radar as they are not technically fraudulent or illegal here.
Hence, many councils contacted by SBS said that meant they had no legal basis for taking action even if a package stated, "For sale in India only."
Why are parallel imports a concern?
While parallel importation of food products is not illegal in Australia, it makes internal controls highly difficult.
Parallel imports are produced according to the food standards of the country where they were manufactured, which might not comply with Australian standards – such as, clearly labelling when a product contains milk or nut by-products. This is a significant concern for those with food allergies.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) advise that "consumers may sometimes be disadvantaged when purchasing parallel imports as opposed to purchasing the same products from an Australian authorised supplier. This is particularly the case if they experience problems with these products."
One of the main disadvantages of parallel imports is they are nearly impossible to recall if a product already in the market is found unsafe for human consumption.
Last year, high-profile brand Maggi noodles were recalled from the entire Indian market because of a lead-contamination alert.
Maggi remained off the shelves for nearly four months, in what became known as the ‘biggest’ recall of food products in India.
Yet, parallel-imported Maggi noodles, labelled "Made-in-India" and clearly marked "For sale in India, Nepal and Bhutan only," still were sold at South Asian grocery stores across Australia.
Food recalls are common in Australia when products have been found to be unsafe for consumption.
But even after SBS Punjabi Radio alerted Food Standards in early June 2015, Indian-made Maggi noodles were not recalled from Australian retail stores.
A "holding order" was, however, issued later in the month.
Food Standards has told SBS it is not its job to enforce or interpret the requirements of the food-standards code, that the state or local government authority has that responsibility.
"What is concerning here is that, even when those quality controls are in place, people get around them,” says RMIT University health-science professor Marc Cohen.
“So we have something that's banned in one country - a chemical or a food substance, and the people who have it think, 'Where can we sell this? Let's sneak it into another country with another label.'"
Listen to the full interview with Professor Marc Cohen below:
Even local councils are unclear about the legality of such "parallel imports."
"I think the level of product, or the products which are coming from India, are suitable for India only,” says Dr Kamaljit Singh Vilkhu, who worked as a food scientist with CSIRO for 17 years.
Vilkhu says it is crucial that Indian-made foods are not brought into Australia unless they are produced for export.
“It may not be suitable for the Australian food industry, says Vilkhu. “Because we have to be very specific about the nutritional value and also the chemical which is being used. Some of the chemicals are prohibited in Australia. In that case, it shouldn't be available."
Listen to the full interview with Dr Kamaljit Singh Vilkhu below:
The north Indian state of Punjab has been widely regarded as the "food bowl of India" for decades now.
But in many of its food-growing regions, overuse of fertilisers and pesticides and heavy-metal contamination have been linked to a sharp increase in cancer.
That was the finding of a study by the United States National Centre for Biotechnology Information.
Yet, foods grown in Punjab and other parts of India that are produced and packaged only for the Indian market continue to be sold in Australia and other parts of the world.
Mislabelled foods sold past their expiry date
Since last year SBS Punjabi Radio has fielded complaints from their audience about mouldy, foul-smelling packaged foods bought at Indian grocery stores in all major cities of Australia.
Investigating further, SBS discovered many Indian grocery stores are selling foods well beyond the recommended consumption date.
Some food items SBS Punjabi Radio bought in May 2016 had the "best before" date of March 2013.
They included children's drinks and supplements for pregnant mothers.
See further evidence of putrid foods sent in by SBS Radio audiences below:
One member of the SBS Punjabi audience reported:
"We just bought Atta, wheat flour, from shop, and the label was very suspicious. Like, it shows, 'Not for sale outside India.' And other thing, there was no date of expiry as well. But there is one thing like 'best before manufacture,' nothing else. So we had just opened it, and, when I found that it had no dates, we just threw it in the bin."
To investigate further, SBS bought hundreds of products from various ethnic grocery stores, and discovered many anomalies.
Several packages clearly showed an altered "best before" date.
The dates were altered either by wiping clean the original best-by date or by sticking a new paper label over the original best-by date.
In both scenarios, the best-by date was extended by months and even years.
"I have worked in this industry,” a former worker at a wholesale distributor for one popular Indian snack brand (who prefers to remain anonymous) explains.
“I have seen myself that dates are tampered with. Haldiram's sweets have expiry of three months. But the real stamped date by Haldiram's is rubbed out, and a new date is stamped on."
Other former workers back up his claim.
"All we have to do is take some thinner on a cotton ball and wipe off the printed numbers on that packaging,” one worker reveals. “Or we just wet the label with the thinner, and the label peels off. No-one can even tell that the date has been changed."
"Of course, this fraud amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says a third industry worker. “Once a container arrives here from India, nothing from it will be wasted. All of the products will be sold or recycled for sale over here. Either the packaging will be changed entirely, or they'll retain the packaging and change the date of expiry."
SBS Punjabi Radio's investigation has uncovered a range of changed labels on Indian foods.
They include a case of a popular Indian children's drink which had a nutritional label that failed to list "milk solids" among the ingredients.
The spice MDH Tawa Fry Masala, which failed the lab test commissioned by SBS, had no label declaring the identity of the Australian importer.
In fact, many more MDH spices bought from the same retailer did not display any reference to the importer, a requirement under Australian law.
The most blatant case of label alteration was a 10-kilogram bag of wheat flour, Shere e Punjab Atta.
The package had a thick black line covering the original print, and "Product of Australia" was clearly printed below it. Rubbing the thick black line revealed the original label said, "Made in India."
Who regulates parallel imports?
SBS Punjabi Radio reported the labelling issue above to Monash City Council in Melbourne, which visited the premises of the retailer and ordered the product be removed from the shelves. It forbade the retailer to sell it any further.
The breach was then reported to the City of Greater Dandenong in Melbourne, where the importer is based.
Local councils are ultimately responsible for ensuring foods sold by retailers comply with the Food Act and health-and-safety regulations.
"The reason for us to test will usually be based on a complaint,” says manager of regulatory services at the City of Greater Dandenong, Peter Shelton.
He says problems usually arise when a customer makes a complaint about a certain product.
“So we'll be looking for particular things, because a person will be saying, 'I got sick'. And so we may have taken samples from that person -- faecal or vomitus samples -- which will show particular things. And then we'll test the food to see if those things are present.”
“There's no blanket testing you can do to analyse a product and see what's in it. That isn't practically affordable to be done. So we need to target our testing on the things we think might be causing a problem."
The council has confirmed it is taking legal action against the importer in this case because the importer has not heeded previous warnings.
Under Victorian law, a penalty of hundreds of thousands of dollars could be ordered.
The managing director of India at Home, the importer of the wheat flour, told SBS he could not remember if the council had contacted the business regarding the product.
In a written statement, India at Home said a local supplier in Melbourne manufactured it and used the same packaging to market both the local flour and the flour imported from India.
The statement added, "I am happy to recall this product if advised by local council."
Peter Shelton says his council is given an annual budget to run tests on around 300 food samples a year.
They receive approximately 800 complaints annually, not all of them concerning imported foods and, from a compliance perspective, Mr Shelton says he believes incorrect labelling poses the greatest challenge.
"We get lots of food coming in from all over the world,” says Shelton.
“We're one of the major cities in Australia, in terms of food imports. We have some of Australia's largest importers in this municipality. We also have one of the most diverse cultures.”
“What we're finding is that, as our country becomes more multicultural, there are more and more foods being imported that are unusual to Australia. And that's fine when those foods are being purchased and consumed by people from those same ethnic groups. But as we become more and more experimental with our food tastes, though, people who aren't used to purchasing, handling, cooking those foods can have problems if they don't understand how to manage them properly."
Listen to the full interview with Peter Shelton, manager of regulatory services at the City of Greater Dandenong, below:
Mr Shelton suggests ethnic-specific foods can have serious labelling issues for a variety of reasons.
Labels may not be in English, they may contain colloquialisms hard for the wider community to understand, or they may not contain adequate warnings for allergies.
Mr Shelton says most retailers respond to a warning when alerted to a problem but the council takes repeat offenders to court.
"We do, on average, 10 court-based prosecutions a year. But we've had years where we may do as many as 30,” says Shelton.
“More recently, there were changes to state legislation that enable us to issue infringement notices, or on-the-spot fines if you like, for minor breaches. We actively issue those penalties as well. We issue perhaps 150 to 200 infringement notices a year across the board. That also deals with issues of cleanliness and a whole range of food-based issues. But in terms of labelling, we can't actually issue infringement notices for labelling breaches. We have to take people to court. And of the average of 10 a year that we would prosecute, probably two or three of those would have labelling issues as part of the matter."
Over the course of the investigation, SBS approached at least five councils with complaints about the quality of imported food products.
The councils' reactions ranged from proactive to disinterested.
The City of Greater Dandenong and Monash City Council took the matter seriously and followed an established protocol, but three others did not register a complaint nor offer any action.
Putrid foods widely available
A large quantity of packaged sweets and products purchased at South Asian grocery stores across Australia have been found unfit for human consumption. See the anecdotal and photographic evidence sent in from SBS Punjabi Radio listeners below.
SBS Punjabi Radio listeners from various cities across Australia have shared their experiences, sending in anecdotal and photographic evidence of expired food:
"Ahmed's Garlic Pickle, which I've been using for the last six years ... this time when I opened the jar, the colour was really dark brown, blackish brown. The taste was horrible, the smell even was horrible. I took it back to the retailer, and he said he can't do anything about it.”
“On Diwali, I bought two boxes of Gajar Halwa. It was foul-smelling, and I tasted it, it was really sour. And when my husband took it out of the box, it was all fungus beneath it. We took it back, and they did not even admit that there was something wrong. They said, 'Oh, we can't do anything about it. We don't make it here. We just get it from the wholesaler.'"
"We bought some biscuits, and offered them to our friends without realising there was fungus on the biscuits. One of our friends noticed it and said, 'Stop, there's something wrong with it.'”
“It was very embarrassing. We thought it can't be right. This is Australia, there are food-standard laws, there is the Food Safety Act, and there are council health laws. How can somebody be selling those biscuits?"
The biscuits they are referring to here are a very popular brand of chocolate biscuits, also available in many Australian supermarkets. In this case, the packet the listener described was bought at a South Asian grocery store.
"We had found a fly in the rusk, an actual fly. I thought it's just a cardamom, but, when I touched it, it's too soft to me, and I realised it had its wings, eyes, you can find a full fly."
"I found one expired product and when I went to the counter, I told him this is an expired product, and he said, 'No, it's all good, still you can use it after expired, about two months or three months.' But there was some conflict. I didn't argue with him. I just said, 'Look, you have about 15 to 16 of the same product sitting on the shelf. You're not liable to sell that. You shouldn't sell it, mate."
SBS has been told there could be yet another reason behind the perished foods.
Aman Bhalla, who runs a cleaning business in Melbourne, says many stores turn off their refrigeration systems at night to save money on their electricity bills.
Because of that, he suggests, foods requiring refrigeration at all times can become mouldy, putrid or full of fungus.
"A lot of people don't believe in paying money for using electricity and all that stuff,” says Bhalla. “So what they do is, to cut off the costs, they turn the freezers off during the night, and, in the morning, they turn them back on.
“But during the night, the item is already thawed, and then you refreeze it again, which puts people's health at risk, because it's not edible if it's already been thawed and frozen again."
Most consumers will not use a product which shows visual signs of deterioration, though.
Industry specialists and consumers agree, if packaged food contains mould, fungus or even a bad odour, the buyer is likely to throw the product away without consuming it.
But all of the specialists interviewed as part of the investigation agreed the more serious issue is the invisible problem of chemical contamination.
Read more about that here:
Exclusive: SBS Testing reveals worrying levels of chemicals in foods available for sale in Australia