Govt targets CoOL laws

20 Jun, 2014 04:00 AM
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A final report is expected in about October that would deliver recommendations for improvements.

FEDERAL parliament is investigating the nation’s Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) system to consider changes to rules to help provide clearer information for Australian food consumers in making more empowered commercial choices.

But the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee chair, SA Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey, says any recommendations for improvements to the complex and confusing labelling system must avoid lumping additional cost burdens on local producers and industry.

The inquiry was referred to the committee by Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane in March.

So far, public hearings have been in Canberra and Sydney, with another scheduled in Melbourne today and Brisbane and Adelaide in early July.

Mr Ramsey said the inquiry had received about 80 submissions to date from various stakeholder groups and was expected to close for deliberations when parliament takes its annual winter break in mid-July.

He said a final report is expected in about October that would deliver recommendations for improvements.

The committee’s terms of reference include looking at whether Australia's CoOL laws are being circumvented by staging imports through third countries and potential impacts on international trade obligations of any proposed changes.

Consumers confused

Mr Ramsey said there was “extraordinary confusion” around the terms ‘Made in Australia’, ‘Product of Australia’ and ‘Made from Australian and Imported Ingredients’ which thwarted the increasing consumer desire to buy Australian made food and produce.

He said the committee was put on notice by Australian Pork Limited’s (APL) admission that 70 per cent of the ham and bacon sold in Australia under a ‘Made in Australia’ label, comes from overseas, imported mostly from Canada, the US and Denmark.

“We fully understand they (importers) aren’t doing anything wrong and are working within country of origin guidelines but whether that’s a little misleading to the public, I think, is the question,” he said.

“Whether or not we can provide recommendations that will help clarify that situation will be the challenge to us.”

APL chief executive officer Andrew Spencer told the committee the Australian pork industry was leading the world on many initiatives including animal welfare, environmental management, product safety and biosecurity.

"Our customers want to support us by buying our product," he said.

But he said today's CoOL laws make consumer informed choice “almost impossible”, with many shoppers unaware that 70pc of Australia's ham and bacon consumption was made from imported pork.

In its submission, the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) said the nation’s current food labelling system was “failing to meet its policy objective” by contributing to a level of confusion among consumers, “rather than informing them as to the true origins of food and this fails to support the farm sector”.

“In short the NFF's guiding principles around labelling are that labelling laws must be practical to implement, provide consumers with an understanding of where the products come from, not impose unreasonable costs, and must not lead to adverse trade implications,” NFF general manager policy Tony Maher said.

CoOL requirements 'inadequate'

Ausveg chief executive officer Richard Mulcahy told the committee CoOL was “one of the most drawn-out areas of policy development the agriculture industry has ever seen in this country”.

He said a significant amount of sustained effort over the last two decades had produced a system that wasn’t perfect but was at least in place.

“Ausveg is of the view that this system would benefit significantly from cosmetic changes that would ultimately result in clearer labelling laws and be a widely supported outcome,” he said.

“The current Country of Origin Labelling requirements are inadequate and do not allow Australian consumers to clearly identify the source and manufacturing origins of the food they purchase.

“Ausveg advocates that it is universally acknowledged that qualified claims such as 'Made from local and imported ingredients' only cause confusion and need to be revisited and simplified.”

Mr Ramsey said consumer group Choice also gave strong evidence about the level of confusion around the origin of food items and where products are grown originally and then processed.

“The fact we have a ‘Made in Australia’ label and then a privately funded and I think very good and reputable organisation with a ‘Made in Australia’ sticker, that’s the green triangle and yellow kangaroo - that each mean totally different things - is very confusing for the market place,” he said.

“I don’t think the general public understands that ‘Made in Australia’ from local and imported produce is actually a lower bar to clear so to speak.”

He said consumers deserved to know more about a product’s country of origin when shopping.

But he said the committee also had to be mindful of not placing impediments on Australian industries to comply with CoOL laws, which their overseas competitors don’t face.

“We can’t afford to get in the space of putting a heavy cost structure on our compliance levels in Australia, to prove you’re Australian, and then allow everything else to come in as non-Australian and then undercut our local industries, because we’ve applied a heavy cost burden at the local level,” he said.

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Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
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READER COMMENTS

Meg
23/06/2014 11:11:31 AM

Country of Origin should mean just that...country where the product is GROWN, not the country where the product is finally canned or packaged before exporting here...

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