Conflicting objectives in Country of Origin Labelling?

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 22nd September 2011

Australian Food News recently reported on Chinese vegetables allegedly entering Australia via New Zealand, without being labelled as being of Chinese origin. Queensland farming organization Growcom called for New Zealand to cooperate on tighter Country of Origin Labelling (‘CoOL’) to comply with the mandatory Australian CoOL requirements.

New Zealand exempts itself from the Country of Origin Labelling (‘CoOL’) requirements of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

By contrast with Australia, New Zealand does not require a food supplier to identify the source of contents of their product. However when such origin labelling declarations appear on products marketed in New Zealand, the identification is being made because it is considered a commercially advantageous premium claim.

Mandatory or voluntary CoOL in Australia?

Speaking to Australian Food News, food law expert Joe Lederman of specialist law firm FoodLegal has pointed out that under a ‘premium claim’ approach to CoOL, as exists in New Zealand, supermarkets and food suppliers wanting to emphasise the premium nature of their product’s origin will voluntarily provide CoOL information.

Mr Lederman said, “One significant problem for introducing voluntary CoOL labelling in Australia has been the concern about house-brand products in supermarkets. With supermarkets having the ability to import overseas food products at short notice (for whatever reason), these major retailers can be hesitant to have a mandatory requirement to specify the actual country of origin.

Seasonality is one issue. Another issue concerns the fact that raw materials may be sourced in one country (sometimes even sourced from Australia) but partly processed in another country, and packaged into consumer-sized packs in another country.

“For example, a product can have Australian-grown ingredients but be processed outside Australia and then re-packed in Australia in consumer packs,” Mr Lederman said.

Different consumers have a variety of CoOL concerns. “Some consumers want to know where a product is grown but there are other consumers who are more concerned about where the product is manufactured,” Mr Lederman said.

“Some of the farming groups advocating stronger mandatory CoOL are assuming that the focus must be on where the produce is grown, whereas there may be Australian consumers more concerned with the place of manufacture and whether Australians are employed to produce the final product in Australia,” Mr Lederman said.

Strengthening local brands to market CoOL as a voluntary claim

Mr Lederman believes that if Australian producers and manufacturers created their own geographic indicator certification brands for their products and also created better vertical distribution channels, the political pressure for mandatory CoOL would not be as great in Australia.

“The current problem in the existing market-place is that the major retailers can be the decision-makers for many products on the shelves when it comes to the CoOL issue. In the case of house-brand processed products in supermarkets, the offering of Country of Origin information is less likely unless CoOL is mandatory. However, for fresh produce in the Australian supermarkets, CoOL might still be considered a premium claim and would most likely be made voluntarily,” Mr Lederman said.

Mr Lederman said, “There are a number of practical difficulties with the mandatory system, and the potential remains for CoOL to continue to be misleading or meaningless for those who want to read more information. There are practical limitations on what a label can say and how often it needs to be changed to meet short-term variances.

“With this in mind, query whether a mandatory CoOL system is able to guarantee a high degree of accuracy or compliance because of seasonality and partial processing offshore,” Mr Lederman said.

Blewett recommendations on Country of Origin Labelling

The January 2011 report of the Australian Government Review Panel, under the leadership of Dr Neal Blewett, into food labelling law and policy (“the Blewett Review“) recommended that the concept of mandatory CoOL be kept in Australia. However, it also recommended new criteria for determining the origin of products for the purposes of mandatory labelling of origin claims.

According to Mr Lederman, the Blewett Review Panel recommended four new definitions:

“Made of Australian ingredients” claim: at least 80% by weight (excluding water) of all ingredients or components of Australian origin.

“Made of Australian and imported ingredients” claim: >50% by weight (excluding water) of ingredients and components of Australian origin.

“Made of Imported and Australian ingredients” claim: <50% by weight (excluding water) of ingredients and components of Australian origin

“Grown in Australia” claim: for unpackaged foods wholly grown in Australia.

Consumer expectations

Mr Lederman pointed out that even these new recommended definitions and thresholds presented practical difficulties and would also be unlikely to meet the different expectations of many Australian consumers. “Mandatory requirements for CoOL might end up embedding the ambiguities,” he said.