NEW Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) measures have already hit supermarket shelves to inform in Australian consumers, with more expected to flow now that laws have been passed to implement changes to the new system.
Last week the federal Senate passed legislation to improve the accuracy of country of origin claims on labels, for identifying where products are ‘made in’ and ‘packed-in’.
Changes were instigated by the Coalition government following a high profile outbreak of Hepatitis A detected on imported frozen berries in early 2015, backing up reform recommendations made in a parliamentary into potential new and improved, CoOL arrangements, for identifying product ingredients and manufacturing.
NSW Nationals Senator John Williams said the road to implementing reforms for CoOL had been long and frustrating.
Senator Williams said in about 1993 he came to Parliament House in Canberra to lobby friends in the National Party for CoOL changes because the then Hawke/Keating Labor government allowed the importation of pig meat from places like Denmark and Canada.
He said he and his brother Peter had a 100-sow piggery, feeding about 1000 pigs a day and found it quite frustrating that pig meat would be imported into Australia, processed it into ham and branded, 'Manufactured in Australia' or 'Product of Australia'.
“It was so misleading,” he said.
“All I wanted was a fair go to see that the Australian people knew what they were buying - whether it was grown in Australia, processed in Australia, imported, processed here from Australian and imported blends et cetera.
“Since 1993 it has been a long, frustrating road, I can assure you.
“We all know that the wheels of parliament do not go very fast.”
But Senator Williams said during the berry contamination issue about 18 months ago he stood up in the joint party room and said to the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, ‘we need a country-of-origin food labelling system so that people can clarify what they are buying and eating’.
“To his full credit, Mr Abbott said, 'Let's get on with it’,” he said.
“That is where we have come to right along this road of country-of-origin labelling.
“It will be good to see the Australian kangaroo and the green triangle - a very well-known label that is very familiar, I would say, to all shoppers in Australia.
“It will have 'Grown in Australia' and the bar code underneath will be completely orange.
“You will know that the food you are about to eat for the can of whatever you are purchasing was grown, processed and packaged here in Australia.
“It will show the blends that will come forward - what percentage is actually made from imported ingredients and from Australian ingredients.
“All we are asking is that people know what they are eating and where it comes from.”
Industry, Innovation and Science Minister and NSW Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos said the legislation passed last week would make it easier for businesses to determine the correct country of origin claim for their product.
He said the changes complemented the CoOL reforms which recently began for food businesses and meant they would no longer have to re-calculate the relative shares of imported and local production to support their origin claim.
These reforms greatly enhance the effectiveness of a new Information Standard for country of origin labelling for food that commenced on 1 July 2016, he said.
Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce said clearer country of origin information helped Australians make more informed decisions about the food and other products they buy.
“This is something consumers have been wanting for a long time now,” he said.
“Thanks to our work in this area, we are already seeing food products such as Beechworth Honey, Birdseye Country Harvest Garden Mix and Angas Park dried apples displaying new country of origin labels in our supermarkets.
“With the new requirements passing through the Senate, businesses that have not already started the process can begin rolling out the new labels with confidence.”
The National Farmers’ Federation said the CoOL changes would improve consumer confidence and ultimately be beneficial to Australian farmers.
NFF Chief Executive Tony Mahar said by and large Australian consumers wanted to know more about the products they were purchasing which included knowing where they came from.
“Whether it’s fresh or preserved fruit and vegetables, meat, baked goods, noodles, pasta or dairy products, I believe the average Australian shopper is not only interested in knowing where their purchases come from but also want to try and support Australian farmers,” he said.
“These new labelling rules will provide Australian consumers with a more informed base to make decisions and allow Australian farmers to build on their reputation as one of the highest quality food producers in the world.”
AUSVEG National Manager of Public Affairs Jordan Brooke-Barnett welcomed the changes saying it would help protect Australians from importers who masked the country of origin of their products, by making superficial changes to the ingredients and claiming that this changed where the food was made.
“By clarifying the requirements of the ‘made in’ label claim, these reforms will benefit Australian consumers, who deserve to know where their food comes from – not where some ingredients were frozen or chopped up,” he said.
Small Business Minister Michael McCormack said the changes were “sweeping and necessary” and gave consumers more information about the products they purchased from supermarket shelves “clearly and concisely”.
“More and more, Australians are conscious of where their food comes from and want to buy Australian product to keep our farmers doing what they do best, whilst keeping jobs and services local in communities,” he said.
“Businesses can now be confident in rolling out the new labels and consumers will soon see even clearer information for their favourite products on supermarket shelves.”
Victorian Labor Senator Kim Carr said his party supported the bill because it provided certainty for industry that safe harbour provisions under Australian Consumer Law were aligned with new CoOL requirements.
“This issue called for a bipartisanship approach in taking steps to resolve a longstanding problem and that is what has happened,” he said.
“The new labelling requirements have been endorsed by state ministers for consumer affairs, the Food and Grocery Council, AUSVEG, the National Farmers' Federation and the consumer advocacy group Choice.
“These bodies have also supported the present bill, which alters the 'safe harbour' provisions of the Australian consumer law for businesses making country-of-origin claims.”
Greens agriculture spokesperson and Victorian Senator Janet Rice said the legislation that passed the Senate last week was “a step in the right direction - but clearly there is further to go to make sure that our food is labelled clearly and more efficiently”.
Senator Rice said Australians wanted to do the right thing when buying their food and if consumers were better informed about food origins, “we can trust that it is going to be top-quality produce that we know we can rely on from Australian food producers”.
She said having good CoOL would also encourage people to consume more fresh produce.
“By thinking more about the origins of the food, we automatically eat in a way that is healthier and more ethical,” she said.
“If you are deciding about a cheap tin of tomatoes that you have suspicions about because of where it has come from, you can decide maybe it would be better to buy the fresh tomatoes that you know have come from the market garden only tens of kilometres away.
“You know that you can have more confidence in the health and sustainability of how that food is being produced.
“One of the examples I often use is: when I am buying lentils and you have two packets of lentils on the shelves and you have to get out your glasses to look at the difference between these lentils.
“With the lentils grown in Canada, I think, 'Fine. Terrific. People in Canada, go ahead and eat those lentils’.
“For people in the US, it would be appropriate to eat those lentils.
“If, on the other hand, you look the next little bit along the shelf and you have exactly the same product that is made in Australia, I will always go for that made-in-Australia product.”