COUNTRY of origin labelling (CoOL) on restaurant and other food service menus is an area of “growing concern” for consumers - but it’s an aspect of the law that’s “difficult to police” for the federal competition watch-dog.
So says Agricultural Commissioner Mick Keogh who heads up the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Agricultural Engagement and Enforcement Unit, which was implemented by the Coalition government to deal with competition issues that impact the farm sector.
Mr Keogh spoke to Fairfax Media after WA revealed it was backing a push to add CoOL to food service menus, as the federal Coalition government forges ahead with an improved truth-in-labelling regime, for retail products.
A move to have CoOL included on food service menus as part of mandatory legislation is being spearheaded by the Seafood Industry Australia, with support from Australian Pork Limited.
The groups are involved in ongoing talks with government officials on the initiative, to help try to combat cheap imported products like pork ribs having a negative impact on price returns to producers.
SIA CEO Jane Lovell says consumers have already demonstrated they want to know where their food comes from and support implementing CoOL in retail.
But her group now wants that same type of information made available on menus in food service outlets to also help combat the market threat of growing imported product lines like fish and prawns.
Ms Lovell welcomed news last week that WA Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly had confirmed he supported introducing CoOL for seafood sold in restaurants and he was meeting with industry stakeholders and relevant agencies to try to devise a practical system.
The WA Fishing Industry Council is also backing the move to improve transparency and information to consumers about product origins, on restaurant menus.
“WA and NSW are both exploring country of origin in food service - NT is already there,” Ms Lovell said.
“WA joining the debate is positive because it shows the level of consumer and political interest.
“What we need is national leadership so we don’t end up with a jurisdictional mishmash with some states in, some out and different rules across the nation.
“The effective solution in mandatory national transparency in menus to support consumer interest and decision making.
“We have come up with a practical solution that gives food service scope to make positive and promotable statements about seafood origin and helps sell more fish.”
In a recent members’ newsletter, Ms Lovell said some of the reasons being put forward in opposition to CoOL on food service menus were valid but “some might be myths”.
She said one myth was that there was no demand for it in seafood for food service outlets because the ACCC hadn't received many complaints from consumers on the issue.
However, Ms Lovell said she tested that theory with a lengthy phone call to the ACCC recently, where she was told the issue wasn't covered by the consumer watch-dog’s governing legislation and that she should take her complaint to an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) and was also referred to the Food Standards website.
“If that is the way we are supposed to deal with country of origin it's a joke,” she said.
Mr Keogh said he was aware consumer complaints had been made to the ACCC about CoOL on food service menus but it typically takes a “triage approach”, seeking to focus on the most important issues, rather than being forced to deal with “every single one”.
He said the ACCC had been focussed on the new CoOL regime in retail and how that worked but was “certainly aware of labelling on food service menus as an emerging issue, especially around providence and credence claims, which are becoming more and more important to consumers”.
“Consumers are increasingly looking for an information package along with their commodity; particularly in premium markets, restaurants and food service etc,” he said.
“It’s about the story that’s associated with the product - the providence and credence claims - that can deliver value and attract a premium price.
“So therefore what you’re seeing is people taking shortcuts, either never having sourced that product from the particular supplier or having sourced a little bit and calling everything the same product.
“A number of those sorts of arrangements are clearly contrary to the rules, but very difficult to enforce.
“Fresh food offered on the plate is not easy to trace.
“It’s about a steak on a plate, ‘so prove to me it didn’t come from x, y or z farm’ and that’s quite a challenging enforcement issue which takes quite a bit of work to police.
“You almost have to have the supplier raise the concern and must then be able to provide evidence that they’ve never supplied that product to that outlet to really get down the track, to get that issue sorted out.
“We’ve seen examples where the restaurant owner says, ‘oh I’m sorry that was our mistake; we forgot we switched our supplier last week’ and that sort of stuff.
“The issue has been raised where the owner of that brand doesn’t actually supply their product to that restaurant and becomes aware that they’re calling their offering that.
“It’s really difficult to work your way through and identify, if you do have a real issue.”
Mr Keogh said the new CoOL laws will apply more to packaged foods and food sold at retail, rather than food served in restaurants and other service outlets.
But he said the new labelling regime introduced by the current government was “certainly a good start and step in the right direction”.
“For a long while we’re actually seeing ‘product of Australia’ that’s actually an imported product which was just wrapped in plastic in Australia, so there’s been a lot of confusion at the consumer level about the product’s origins,” he said.
“Hopefully this new CoOL standard will start to clarify that but it’s not without its hiccups.
“There are issues like, ‘does it have to be 100pc and how do you count for minor ingredients and minor elements?’ but all that stuff is starting to sort it-self out.
“The new legislation is in place and doesn’t have full effect until 2018 and doesn’t apply to what they call non priority foods.
“It’s more to do with what country it was produced in and if that’s clearly identified on the labelling.”
CoOL for food service working group
As part of the federal government’s plan to introduce new CoOL regime for retail products, a working group was established to consider options for improving consumer access to seafood origin information, in the food service sector.
The group’s consultation process with seafood and foodservice industry stakeholders is being led by the Assistant Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Craig Laundy.
The federal government is due to report back to the parliament by the end of 2017 on its progress.
Mr Laundy chaired the first meeting of the Seafood Origin Working Group in July where a discussion paper was tabled and the next meeting is due on November 22.
The working group’s discussion paper said when origin information is not voluntarily disclosed, consumers are able ask foodservice staff for additional information or choose alternative meals.
It said although some consumers may experience difficulty or ambiguity obtaining origin information, the ACCC and state and territory consumer regulators, which administer the Australian Consumer Law, had advised they receive “negligible complaints in relation to false or misleading claims about seafood origins in food service”.
“Since 2012, there have been no complaints about false and misleading seafood origin claims in the food service sector,” it said.
“State and Territory Food Safety Authorities also carry out surveillance of restaurants.
“State and Territory compliance statistics indicate that there are low numbers of complaints in relation to seafood origin claims.
“The Victorian Food Safety Authority has indicated that since 2012, it has received two complaints about quality, standard or origin of seafood in foodservice industry.”
The paper also said Australian Consumer Law prohibits foodservice businesses from making false or misleading origin claims.
It said pf Australia’s total seafood consumption - from both imported and domestic origins - 51 per cent was consumed via foodservice channels.
“Menus, chalk boards, electronic displays and websites are common reference points for consumers seeking seafood origin information,” it said.
“If not voluntarily disclosed via these avenues, consumers are able ask for additional information from food service staff.
“In some cases, staff should generally be able to obtain origin information either from packaging or enquiry with suppliers.
“The onus is on the foodservice business to retain records of the origin, such as invoices it receives from the suppliers.
Mr Laundy said the Australian seafood industry was “important to Australia” and generated $1.5 billion in industry value-added as at June 2016 while the foodservice industry generated $26 billion over the same period.
He said “it’s important that we get the balance right” in terms of CoOL.
“We need to ensure consumers have access to information they seek, while maintaining a vibrant seafood industry without unnecessarily burdening businesses with regulation,” he said.
“The government’s recent reforms to country of origin labelling within retail give consumers clearer and more meaningful information on the origin of all food, including seafood, sold in retail.
“The reforms strike a balance between consumer information needs and regulatory costs to businesses.
“As such, the government maintained the long-standing exemption for origin information on food sold for immediate consumption in foodservice, with agreement of the state and territory ministers on the Legislative and Governance Forum on Consumer Affairs.
“In a retail setting, a consumer is unable to engage directly with the business making the product and so consumers depend on clear labelling to obtain reasonable origin information.
“However, in food service – where production and consumption of meals generally take place together on the same premises – consumers are able to directly ask the business preparing their meal for origin information.”
Mr Laundy said during the introduction of the changes to CoOL some stakeholders in the seafood industry asked the government to reconsider the exemption for origin information on seafood sold in foodservice and in response he convened the industry working group.
Its members include: Australian Hotels Association; Fisheries Research and Development Corporation; National Retailers Association; Northern Territory Seafood Council; Professional Fisherman’s Association; Restaurant and Catering Australia; Seafood Importers Association of Australia; Seafood Industry Australia; Sydney Fish Market; and the Tasmanian Seafood Industry Council.