MOVES to push for Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) in food service outlets is gathering a head of steam in the seafood sector with “considerable” political backing.
As revealed this week, Australian Pork Limited (APL) is taking steps to look at labelling Australian product in restaurant and pub menus to help consumers identify cheap imported pork products like ribs which is contributing to producers’ price pain.
“In retail, whether a product is Australian or not, makes a big difference to a consumer – but people don’t ask about country of origin when they go to restaurants or clubs and it’s not on a menu,” APL CEO Andrew Spencer.
“We’re really having a close look at this at the moment - and discussing it with some of the states and throwing the idea around with some of the federal departments too.”
Mr Spencer said APL was also in talks with the seafood industry which took further steps this week to embolden its approach and ignite political action to support a new truth-in-labelling regime in pubs, clubs and even fish and chip shops.
Seafood Industry Australia (SIA) CEO Jane Lovell said the organisation’s board approved its policy on CoOL, at a meeting in Sydney this week.
“Essentially we believe in transparency, just like is available in retail,” she said referring to the federal government’s new CoOL measures.
“We do not believe that it is plausible to ‘ask the waiter’ to tell you where the fish comes from.
“Quite aside from the cute answer some of us have received that it’s ‘from the sea’, the responses are often incorrect, although this may only be obvious to someone immersed in the industry.
“This means consumers are prone to believing misinformation which contravenes Australian consumer law requirements for information not to be deceptive, false or misleading.”
Ms Lovell said consumers had demonstrated that they wanted to know where their food came from and research undertaken to support CoOL in retail was one example of that view.
“We want the same information to be available for seafood in food service,” she said.
“With such high levels of imports, we believe the Australian consumer is purchasing ‘unbranded’ seafood believing it to be Australia.
“With over 70 per cent of fish sold in Australia being imported, this cannot be the truth.
“Our proposed solution to CoOL in food service has been developed taking into account concerns raised by food service spokespeople regarding cost and inconvenience.”
SIA’s policy says Australian seafood must be identified by country, region or brand to ensure “a positive and promotable message reaches the consumer”.
“Focusing on the ‘Australianness’ of the product is aligned with the principles behind retail country of origin labelling,” it said.
“For example, Australian Barramundi or Northern Territory Barramundi or Humpty Doo Barramundi.
“Imported seafood can be similarly identified if so desired.
“If not, then there must be a mechanism to indicate that the seafood is imported, but there is no requirement to identify specific country of origin.
“This provides increased flexibility for businesses to manage variations in supply without the need to alter menus.
“For example an ‘I’ after the fish species or descriptor that links to a footnote explaining this product is imported - or similar statement or symbol that makes it clear the product is not Australian.”
SIA’s policy says there is “considerable political support” for the initiative, from both sides of federal parliament and from some on the Senate cross benches.
But it also said there were “political headwinds” as federal Assistant Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Craig Laundy “remains unconvinced that there is a need for labelling”.
In detailing a list of the Assistant Minister’s concerns, the policy said he wasn’t convinced of the need for a regulatory solution; believed mandating some form of CoOL in food service placed a cost on one industry sector to the benefit of another industry sector; and felt information regarding country of origin can be obtained by other methods, like asking waiting staff.
Among SIA’s potential strategies is to investigate the potential to undertake national promotion of Australian seafood advertising in conjunction with implementation of CoOL in food service outlets.
Push for CoOL in food service outlets in NSW parliament
SIA has also pointed to the support of NSW Labor MP David Mehan for the initiative.
He tabled a Private Member’s Bill earlier this month, aiming to introduce compulsory CoOL of seafood in food service outlets, including fish and chip shops.
Mr Mehan said many people believed seafoods like barramundi was Australian, yet over two‑thirds was imported from Asia.
“An assessment of barramundi consumption commissioned in 2009 by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation indicates that imports made up 68 per cent of about 7400 tonnes of barramundi fillets consumed in 2008-09,” he said.
He said his Bill, if enacted, would ensure that “when we order barramundi from a restaurant or at our local fish and chip shop, we will do so knowing whether it is imported or sourced from Australian waters”.
“And in so doing, we will be supporting the professional fishing men and women of this State,” he said.
“Having a vibrant local fishing industry is part of what it means to have a diverse economy that can support a range of jobs, particularly jobs in regional areas.
“In all Australian jurisdictions except the Northern Territory, the food service industry is exempt from the current country of origin labelling requirements.
“This means that restaurants and takeaway food shops do not have to write on their menus whether their seafood is Australian or imported.
“Northern Territory laws require that imported seafood prepared for immediate consumption must be labelled as imported but the source country is not required.
“Australian-sourced seafood in the Northern Territory is not required to be labelled or identified at all.
Mr Mehan said the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association of Australia claimed recently that the cost to the food service sector of implementing CoOL labelling would be $300 million annually.
He said the Association’s CEO John Hart gave evidence to an Australian parliamentary inquiry that the cost each time a menu was updated would be $8000 to $10,000 per restaurant.
“He did that without presenting any evidence to justify the claim,” he said.
“Claims by the association about the high cost of changing menus to accommodate country-of-origin labelling for seafood have not been supported by any of the evidence so far.
“The report on the implementation of legislation in the Northern Territory indicates that there is robust evidence that the cost of labelling is "not significant".
“In fact, the study found that the Northern Territory experience and changes to labelling were supported by fishers, seafood retailers and consumers alike, and that they were pleased with the result.
“The report also found that labelling does influence consumer choice.
“Consumers are willing to pay a premium for local product and businesses adjust quickly to the new regulations.”