CHOICE calls for mandatory country of origin meat labelling

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 9th September 2011

Consumer advocacy group CHOICE claims unpackaged meat products sold in Australia should be subject to the same country of origin labelling requirements as other food products.

Currently, the only unpackaged meat products that require country of origin labelling under the Australian Food Standards Code are pork and seafood.

CHOICE wants mandatory labelling extended to unpackaged beef, sheep and chicken meat in accordance with a proposal by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

FSANZ’s Proposal P1011 was prompted by concerns over imported beef following a change in Australia’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) food safety policy. The change in policy, which came into effect on 1 March 2010, means countries previously ineligible to export beef to Australia due to BSE concerns are now able to access the Australian market, provided they meet new requirements.

Today, CHOICE revealed the results of a survey of over 900 of its members. The survey found that 85% of respondents said they would like to know the country of origin of their food.

CHOICE spokesperson Ingrid Just said, “Even though we import relatively small amounts of beef and sheep meat, and no chicken meat, evidence shows that Australians want to know where their food comes from.

“Origin labelling must be mandatory in order to maintain consumer confidence. A voluntary labelling system would most likely lead to a situation where retailers selling Australian meat would display country of origin information while those selling imported meat may not.”

In its submission on the FSANZ proposal, CHOICE recommends that a single sign could be used by independent butchers to indicate that all meat is Australian unless otherwise indicated.

Ms Just added, “CHOICE recognises that independent butchers should not be subjected to costly signage requirements. We believe a single sign is a cost-effective way of ensuring that people can make informed decisions about the unpackaged meat they’re buying.”

The FSANZ proposal states, “A lack of a regulatory response to this well-publicised gap in the country of origin labeling regime can work to diminish trust and confidence in the food supply.

“Research indicates that country of origin information is important to Australian consumers. It plays a key role in the creation of trust and confidence in the food supply and is valued more in the context of fresh food products such as fresh meat.”

Draft amendments to the Food Standards Code would come into effect six months from the date of gazettal, subject to any request from the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council for a review.

Australian legal position seems likely to adopt same stance as CHOICE

Leading food industry law expert Joe Lederman of FoodLegal points out that on 18 July 2011, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) released its Assessment Report for Proposal P1011, which proposes to introduce country of origin labelling (CoOL) for all unpackaged meat under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

“Under the current Standard 1.2.11 of the Food Standards Code, country of origin labelling is only mandatory for packaged foods, as well as unpackaged pork, fish, fruit and vegetables. However, these requirements do not extend to unpackaged meat, such as beef, sheep and chicken meat, apart from the current pork origin labelling requirement.

“As a part of its Assessment of Proposal P1011, FSANZ considered four regulatory options:

1.    Option 1(a): abandon the Proposal and maintain the status quo under Standard 1.2.11.

2.    Option 1(b): abandon the Proposal and adopt a non-regulatory approach, such as industry self-regulatory guidelines and voluntary codes of practice.

3.    Option 2(a): develop draft variations to Standard 1.2.11 to extend CoOL requirements to unpackaged beef, sheep and chicken meat.

4.    Option 2(b): facilitate the drafting of a draft code of practice through the formal standard development process under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991.

“In its Final Report for Proposal 1011, FSANZ noted that of the four options, Option 1(a) imposes minimal additional costs, but also has the least benefits to stakeholders and does not address the lack of complete information for consumers regarding the country of origin of unpackaged meats.

“Option 1(b) would incur some costs in the development of an industry code of practice, but will also provide a mechanism for voluntarily declaring country of origin for unpackaged meats. However, FSANZ dismissed this option, stating that “overseas experience show that a voluntary scheme is unlikely to lead to universal adoption of country of origin labelling unless the industry is provided with sufficient incentives to do so”.

“Option 2(a) would involve some implementation costs for the industry, but it will provide consumers with mandatory information needed to make their purchasing decisions within the Food Standards Code framework.

“Option 2(b) would be similar to Option 1(b), the only difference being that it may involve some costs on the part of FSANZ in facilitating the development of the code of conduct for the meat industry.

“After assessing all four of these above options, FSANZ concluded that while the benefits to consumers from extending CoOL requirements to unpackaged meat will be difficult to quantify, nonetheless, the omission of the country of origin labelling requirements in Standard 1.2.11 for some unpackaged meats is something that needs to be addressed due to “consumer perceptions of its importance” and the impact of CoOL “information on building consumer trust and confidence in the food supply”.

“Therefore, in effect, FSANZ has expressed that its preferred approach is Option 2(a) – drafting variations to Standard 1.2.11 to extend country of origin labelling for all unpackaged meats.

“Under the draft Standard 1.2.11 attached to Proposal 1011, unpackaged meats such as beef, veal, lamb, mutton, hogget and chicken will simply be added to Clause 3 of Standard 1.2.11, for which the CoOL requirement is mandatory.”