A SUBMISSION on new Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) laws will be presented to federal cabinet within the next month by Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Mr Macfarlane said other relevant ministries, such as health, would be involved in the submission process.
Calls to improve food labelling have been around for 30 years, Mr Macfarlane said, since he first went into public life as a member of the GrainGrowers Association.
He said it’s also been an issue that the National Farmers' Federation has grappled with to try and resolve equity for farmers and protect consumers – but the time has now come for changes to appease consumer demands.
“I have to say, the time has come where there is to be some hard decisions made and those decisions will impact on manufacturers and processors here in Australia and those costs will invariably get passed on to consumers,” he told ABC radio today.
“Consumers are right; we do need a system that works.”
Mr Macfarlane referred to the House of Representatives committee inquiry into food labelling that he instigated last year, which reported “fortuitously” just before Christmas.
He said prior to the latest issue – a Hepatitis A outbreak on imported berries from China - he was already in discussions with the inquiry committee chairman, and South Australian Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey about CoOL options.
Mr Macfarlane said those talks were based on how the government could “implement something that actually means what it should mean to the consumer who goes into the supermarket and has to work out whether these goods are in fact made from Australian products or are imported, or a combination of both”.
“I could perhaps understand why people are becoming frustrated, but the committee has made a set of recommendations and I will respond to those recommendations,” he said.
“The Minister for Agriculture and I will be making a submission to Cabinet within the next month, but at the moment what we’re doing is distilling that report.
“I’ve already sat down with the committee chairman twice and I’m sitting down with him again in a much larger group made up of the relevant ministers.”
Mr Macfarlane said the working group was determined to create a system which “is more than words”.
“We are looking at a symbol where someone can walk into a supermarket and say ‘yes, that is entirely Australian’, or ‘that’s 90 per cent Australian in produce’, or ‘there’s no Australian produce in this’,” he said.
“Of course, this is not going to fix all the issues and parallel to this we look at our biosecurity and in terms of quarantine and issues relating to the inspection of foods when they come into Australia.
“In the case of the berries of course, it was marked ‘Made in China’ and people made a conscious decision, assuming they could see it on the label and it was there in print.”
Mr Macfarlane said one of Mr Ramsey’s committee inquiry recommendations was for the print – detailing where the product is made and the make-up of ingredients – to be 30 or 50pc larger than the surrounding print.
“That is a great suggestion,” he said.
“At the same time though I think that we need some sort of symbol and that’s what today’s and tomorrow’s discussions are centring on, that will allow people, even without their glasses, to basically look at a product and say, ‘yep, I recognise that symbol, that’s made in Australia’, or ‘that has more than 50pc Australian produce in it’,” he said.
“When we do come up with a proposal, we will differentiate between the fact that it’s processed or packaged in Australia, so it may say ‘packaged in Australia from 50pc Australian produce’ or ‘fully imported produce’.
“It can’t hedge its bets by saying ‘imported’ and/or ‘Australian produce’.
“It actually will have to delineate in percentage terms between what they are and again, that’s what we’re trying to do with the symbol.
“As an ex-farmer, I’ve got to say, I try to only eat Australian food and I guess it’s both from a safety and a patriotic perspective.
“We do have the safest fresh and processed food in the world right here in Australia.
“I always encourage people to buy locally and buy Australian fresh and processed produce.
“In the end, it’s up to consumers what they are prepared to pay.”