INAUGURAL Seafood Industry Australia (SIA) Chair Veronica Papacosta says the absence of country of origin labelling (CoOL) on food service menus leaves a “black hole” in consumer knowledge that must be filled by government intervention.
That’s why her group is backing the introduction of a mandatory regulatory CoOL system, to increase transparency levels and consumer understanding of product origins in food service venues like pubs, clubs and restaurants.
As well as heading up the newly incorporated SIA, Ms Papacosta is also Managing Director of the third-generation family owned and operated Sydney Fresh Seafood group which operates both retail and food service outlets.
She spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media about her group joining with Australian Pork Limited (APL) - the industry’s producer levy and government funded research and marketing agency - to lobby the federal government for CoOL on food service menus, to build awareness about the impact of cheap imports, versus locally produced products.
“Country of origin labelling is about transparency and having it on food service menus is about having a better balance and sharing responsibility between the seafood industry and food service, so the consumers and everyone else, has a win,” she said.
“The fact is, country of origin labelling isn’t happening in food service at the moment but customers are becoming more and more aware that there’s this sort of black hole, where the information they need, doesn’t exist.
“In one store run by my family business, on the left hand side we sell retail products with full country of origin labelling - but on the other side of the store, in the food service area, there’s nothing.
“So for a consumer, they should be asking the question ‘why is country or origin labelling in retail outlets, but not in food service?’”
But Ms Papacosta said it was difficult to ask food service providers to adopt a voluntary CoOL regime on menus because it was a form of “commercial suicide”.
“Outside of my own example, Mures in Tasmania - a quintessential Tasmanian fishing company which has a fish and chip shop in the centre of Hobart on the Marina - has two or three other fish and chip shops located around them,” she said.
“They voluntarily went and put country of origin labels on every product on their menu but had customers turning away, two to one, because they’d say, ‘well that product is from Vietnam or that’s from China or that’s from somewhere else’.
“They’d look at the menu and then say ‘we’ll just go next door where it’s Australian’ because there was no labelling on the menus next door.
“We can see the challenge for people in food service if they want to go it alone so the legislative approach is the only approach.”
Ms Papacosta said without CoOL on food service menus, pubs or restaurants were taking on a “community-wide assumption” where consumers implied the non-labelled products were home-grown.
“It’s a lot to ask a food service outlet to do that voluntarily - it’s like commercial suicide - and that‘s why we’re insisting on a legislative approach because we have to do this together and once we do it together, we’re safer in numbers and then the consumer adjusts to the reality,” she said.
“In the NT, where the government enforced country of origin labelling of seafood in food service outlets, many of the food service people that you talk to (about the issue) will tell you that the day before it started, it felt like Armageddon and the world was going to end - but the day after, the world did not end.
“But we all have to step forward together on this and I think that’s only fair.
“From a food service perspective it is hard to go it alone because you’re battling a community-wide assumption and it’s hard to do it on your own, so the government must get involved.”
Seafood industry not “persecuting” its customers
Ms Papacosta said being a seafood retailer and also in food service meant she didn’t approach the issue of wanting CoOL on food service menus with an external view.
She said she had an “internal view” which contrasted with how the food service and seafood industries have interacted, to date.
Ms Papacosta said the seafood industry also understood that food service industries were “also our customers and we don’t want to be persecuting our customers so it’s really important that we all come to this together”.
But she said with the increased pressure around the introduction of country of origin labelling for retail and pre-packaged seafoods, the focus is again on food service menus.
“It is an outlet and a communication with customers and an increasingly important method of communication,” she said.
“This issue will just keep coming up again - there’s an air of inevitability about it now and we’d like to see it addressed.
“The SIA is the first peak national body the seafood industry has had in 10-15 years so now we can start collaborating and the time is also right to move forward, with the federal government introducing new standards for country of origin labelling in retail.”
Ms Papacosta said SIA wanted to work with the food service sector to develop the best labelling system and design the eventual image or graphics to be used - but wanted it implemented ASAP.
“We’ve had quite a few meetings with different members of the food service industry and they’re quite forthright about what they can and can’t manage and what would help bring the costs down,” she said.
“The overriding concept is ‘positive and promotable’ so where it’s Australian it’s positive and promotable, to use the country, region or the brand because there’s a lot of businesses doing a lot of brand building, based on their region.
“Where it’s not an Australia product, the labelling message may still be ‘positive and promotable’, like Alaskan King Crab or Alaskan Wild Caught Salmon.
“Where it’s not an Australian product, it needs an indicator to indicate it’s imported and whether that’s done with an ‘i’ or an asterisk on the menu, we’re happy to work with the food service sector to see what that actually looks like.
“We don’t think there’s any reason why it can’t happen ASAP but we would need a 12-month phase in period.
“And we’d like to see the pork and seafood industries support any new country of origin labelling system in food service outlets with marketing, and once consumers understand the lay of the land, they’re very good at searching their way through all of that.”
Ms Papacosta stressed APL and SIA wanted to work together with the food service sector to achieve a balanced outcome to aid the government lobbying.
“We’re often told that the seafood industry wants food service to bear the cost of country or origin labelling,” she said.
“But for a very long time, food service has to acknowledge they’ve worked off the IP of the seafood industry, and the intrinsic value of the Australian seafood industry which is that we’re very well managed and the quality and variety is exceptional.
“Australian seafood is regarded as some of the best in the world but bringing that back to the reality of an everyday situation, when a customer orders a piece of fish or seafood off the menu, they order it with the understanding or assumption that it’s Australian and therefore has that intrinsic value.”
Ms Papacosta said latest statistics indicated about 79 per cent of seafood was imported and most of the retail seafood sold locally was Australian.
She said that meant the majority of the 79pc imported product was sold through food service venues - but that number included tinned tuna, which can “skew it a bit”.
“But this isn’t about persecuting imported products - it’s about giving consumers a better and more informed choice,” she said.
“And protein in general can benefit from this because this is the centre of the plate - the main item on the dish.
“Pork has been very strong coming forward on this issue but what’s interesting is some of the government rhetoric has been that the seafood industry hasn’t done enough of its own national seafood marketing – so they’re saying we haven’t supported our own product and we’re looking for legislative support.
“But pork on the other hand have been marketing their own product very strongly for the last 15 years and they’re stilling coming to the seafood industry saying ‘we want on board with the country of origin menu labelling discussion because we’ve spent 15 years marketing our product but it’s hard to fight that community-wide assumption that the product is Australian’.
“So they’ve actually acknowledged that they need a legislated approach as well to country of origin labelling.”
Ms Papacosta said CoOL on food service menus didn’t impact the beef and chicken industries as much as it did for seafood and pork, which are increasingly facing competition from a range of different imported products.
“With beef you understand that either 100pc or close to 100pc is Australian and that assumption is correct,” she said.
“But with the seafood industry, we have hundreds of different products coming in from different locations so it’s a unique protein in that sense and pork is increasingly becoming like that so the level of product complexity is increasing in their industry and hence they’re also looking for government support, for country of origin labelling.”