NATIONAL AFFAIRS by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Will Australia strengthen country-of-origin labelling laws?
, January 31, 2015
Following the recent report of a parliamentary inquiry into deficiencies in laws regarding product labelling, the onus is now on the Commonwealth government to strengthen consumer protections by requiring stricter country-of-origin labelling on food.
The House of Representatives report, A Clearer Message for Consumers, was tabled in October 2014.
Strengthening consumer law will also benefit Australian food producers who have long argued that food manufacturers and the large supermarket chains have used weak laws to mislabel foods as “made in Australia”.
The report is particularly relevant in light of concerns about food safety in China, the third largest source of Australia’s imported food.
The leading horticultural body, representing Australia’s 9,000 vegetable and potato growers, AUSVEG, recently reported the statement by China’s food and drug regulator, that food safety in China is “grim”.
Separately, a forthcoming article in the International Journal of Food Safety, Nutrition and Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal, has raised serious questions about the safety of bottled water in China.
The article’s authors, Jian Pu and Kensuke Fukushi, report that bottled water sales in China have sky-rocketed as consumers seek to reduce their reliance on polluted water supplies from rivers, dams and reservoirs. (These, however, are the main sources of water for fruit and vegetables imported into Australia).
Owing to the pollution of drinking water, increasing health consciousness and growing urbanisation, China has become the third largest consumer market in the world for bottled drinking water.
The authors write: “Despite the large market for bottled drinking water and the increase of bottlers in China, there have been relatively few investigations into public health aspects of bottled water.
“In this paper, the bacterial water quality of bottled water in China was reviewed. National spot-check results revealed that 17.5% of samples were found contaminated, 79.3% of which were due to exceeding microbial level.”
The microbial contaminant was E. coli, which comes from faecal matter.
Australia’s recent parliamentary inquiry found that the consumer laws regarding product labels, such as “Made in Australia”, “Australian-grown”, “Product of Australia”, “Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients”, are confusing and ambiguous.
Enforcement of the existing product labelling laws is shared between state governments and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
The ACCC told the parliamentary inquiry that it had initiated 20 country-of-origin enforcement actions between 2007 and 2013. Most of these actions were settled by consent, and without publicity, so the public is not generally aware of breaches of the law.
The ACCC told the parliamentary inquiry that it had taken action against Coles Supermarkets where six separate infringement notices were paid totalling $61,200 for alleged misleading representations about the country of origin of fresh produce made in five of its stores between March and May 2013.
Among the products about which there is most confusion are pork and its by-products (ham and bacon), fruit juices and concentrates, chocolates, dairy products and seafood.
One of the major reasons why Australia has weak country-of-origin labelling is fear that the World Trade Organisation will rule that strengthening country-of-origin labelling will put Australia in breach of its obligations under international trade agreements.
Australia is one of a number of countries which have taken action against the United States, which recently introduced stronger country-of-origin laws in regard to beef cattle.
Another problem is that much of Australia’s imported food comes from New Zealand, which does not have comprehensive country-of-origin labelling laws. This has led to widespread suspicions that New Zealand has been used as a transit point for foreign food imports into the much larger Australian market.
Among its major recommendations, the House of Representatives committee proposed:
1) that the Australian government implement the following country-of-origin labelling rules:
• “Grown in” — 100 per cent content from the country specified;
• “Product of” — 90 per cent content from the country specified;
• “Made in [country] from [country] ingredients” — 90 per cent content from the country specified;
• “Made in [country] from mostly local ingredients” — more than 50 per cent Australian content;
• “Made in [country] from mostly imported ingredients” — less than 50 per cent Australian content.
2) that the Commonwealth government amend the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code so as to allow for prescription of country-of-origin label text information on packaged foods to be increased in size compared with surrounding text on a product label.
3) that the Commonwealth government increase its scrutiny of products with mostly or all imported ingredients that use misleading Australian symbols, icons and imagery.
The inquiry did not recommend that labels should nominate the country of origin of each and every ingredient, because of its cost and complexity.