Labelling law confusion

WOOLWORTHS has taken the decision to stock Australian only produce in its tinned fruit lines.

This represents about 50 per cent of its fruit procurement, with the remaining 50pc being sourced from countries such as Swaziland and South Africa, for its plastic snack pack lines which are marketed at children.

The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) resolution passed in June this year calls on supermarkets to commit to using Australian produce in all their house-branded tinned, plastic and snack pack lines.

Supermarkets are not charities and if Woolies has decided to stock Aussie grown, the reason is because their market research shows there is a commercial market advantage in it.

They are right. According to a Roy Morgan poll on the topic, 89pc of Australian consumers felt it was important or very important that fresh food was Australian and 82pc felt it was important or very important processed food was Australian.

The actual buying behaviour of consumers may not fully reflect these values, and it's obvious that poor labelling has a lot to do with it and this is a market that's waiting to be fully tapped.

Unlike other consumer goods, food is ingested into ourselves and many people feel strongly about the origins of the food they buy, how and under what conditions it was produced.

The research shows Australian consumers prefer to buy Australian made, particularly when it comes to food.

This is because they want to know that food is safe and of high-quality and they want to support Australian jobs.

Nevertheless, consumers have great difficulty in finding and deciphering where products are produced and there is widespread concern over the confusing plethora of definitions relating to the Australian nature of the product.

There are serious concerns about our current labelling regime and the extent it allows foreign imports to be classified as 'made in Australia'.

Currently the test for a product to achieve this classification is that it must be 'substantially transformed' in Australia and 50pc of the total cost of producing or manufacturing the good is attributable to processes that took place in Australia.

It is noteworthy beef, lamb, and chicken products have traditionally not been required to display any information about their country of origin.

The confusing country-of-origin labelling laws in Australia is a brick wall in the face of industry efforts to differentiate Australian products in the marketplace and fail to provide the consumer with the information they seek and have a right to know.

The unclear nature of the 'made in Australia' label can seriously undermine industry efforts and consumer confidence.

For example, in Denmark, pigs do not have to have access to the outdoors in order to be labelled as 'free range', however in Australia, they do.

As curing is regarded as a 'substantial transformation' bacon cured in Australia from Danish pork can be labelled as both 'free range' and 'made in Australia', even though the pork is not Australian and would not meet our free range standards.

The inability of consumers to easily distinguish between pork products grown and made here and those made overseas undermines Australian farmers' significant investment and commitment to phase out the use of sow stalls.

Country-of-origin labelling requirements for food needs to be clearer, more transparent and focus on the consumer's understanding.

Some say greater public education is the answer.

The reality is that such campaigns will be ineffectual due to the difficulty involved with our current labelling laws.

The federal government's attention must be focused on reform of the laws as this will be the most effective way to protect and promote Australian producers and deliver truthful and useful information to consumers.

Australia produces extremely high quality food, both at the farm gate and after processing.

Research shows Australian consumers regularly use country-of-origin labels as a way of assessing a number of values-based concerns including environmental issues, animal welfare, methods of production and perceived food safety.

In setting down clear rules for when and how origin claims can be made, governments can provide a springboard for industry to promote the reasons why consumers should purchase food made of Australian ingredients.

If this happens, then the supermarkets will have a clearer basis on which to differentiate their products, they will reap the commercial advantages of using Australian produce in their house-branded lines, and keep Australian primary producers and processors in business.

Lax country-of-origin labelling requirements that allow cheap imports to be presented as Australian are a threat to the survival of our food industry and food security.

If our producers are really going to be able to take up the opportunities presented by the growing middle-class in Asia as set out in the Asian Century White Paper, then we must act now to amend our labelling laws to ensure our producers and processors are able to compete fairly in our domestic markets and develop a credible 'Brand Australia' based on their unique provenance, premium quality, assured safety and environmental sustainability.

  • Sonia Smith is a VFF member, and Ballarat-based lawyer with more than 10 years of international law experience.
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