Could new country of origin labelling laws send small food producers broke? – ABC Rural
Australian food businesses say new country of origin labelling laws, which require them to redesign packaging, will cost tens of millions of dollars.
New labels to show how much of a product is from Australia will be compulsory from July 2018, but some smaller producers are outraged that highly processed foods and drinks are exempt.
Why do we have new country of origin laws?
Remember the frozen berry scare a couple of years ago? When a hepatitis A outbreak was linked to imported frozen berries in 2015, it sparked calls for greater transparency on the origin of food ingredients.
The incident was a catalyst for the Federal Government to revisit the long-debated issue of country of origin food labelling, and attempt to give consumers a better idea of where their food came from.
Country of origin labelling has been mandatory in Australia for years, but consumers found the old system confusing and unhelpful.
One year on from the frozen berry incident, the Government announced clearer labelling was on the way.
Producers were given two years to comply with the new laws, and the deadline is next July.
What will the labels tell consumers?
Government-commissioned research found consumers really cared about where less processed products such as seafood, tinned tomatoes and honey came from, so the Government came up with labels that tell shoppers how much of a product is made, packed or processed in Australia.
The current laws (the ones being replaced) require labels to state when a product is made from local and imported ingredients, which could mean the canned beans come from Spain but the water they are preserved in is Australian.
Federal Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos said the new labels would give consumers confidence to know where what they were consuming was coming from, and a clear indication of what was Australian and what was not.
Why are food businesses unhappy?
The food industry supports greater transparency, but some businesses are not happy with how much the new system is costing them.
Food South Australia chief executive Catherine Sayer said the overall cost to Australian businesses would be “millions and millions of dollars”, none of which would be passed on to consumers.
Some businesses have already changed their labels, but others claim the process is proving time consuming, confusing and costly.
Pam Brook, who makes Brookfarm muesli in Byron Bay, estimated that redesigning her 70 different packages would cost about half a million dollars.
Other producers said they would have to use conservative estimates of how much of their product could be called Australian because of the seasonality and availability of ingredients.
Ms Sayer said an example of a product ingredient that was sourced from Australia or overseas depending on seasonal availability was butter.
“Sometimes there is a lot of butter in Australia and sometimes there is not. So companies have to look overseas to purchase some of their ingredients,” Ms Sayer explained.
“That is fine, but the country of origin labelling will not take that into account and you have to lower the average of Australian content overall, which then makes the product look like it is not from Australia.”
Will the labels actually work?
Health experts such as Melanie Voevodin from Monash University said the new labels were not giving consumers the information they really wanted.
“It doesn’t actually tell us where our food comes from,” she said.
But the labels do work for single ingredient products such as honey and seafood because it is easier to say where they come from, and producers of those types of foods are happier with the change.
It gets trickier when products contain lots of different ingredients.
“It just gets a lot harder for the industry, a lot more expensive, the further up the value chain you go,” Ms Sayer said.
The Government has been out talking to shoppers about the new labelling, and Mr Sinodinos said the feedback had been positive.
Do all products need the new labels?
The Government’s research showed consumers did not care much about the origins of highly processed products, so it made ‘non-priority’ foods exempt from the laws.
That means confectionary, snack foods, biscuits, soft drinks and alcohol do not need the new labels.
That decision has outraged some smaller producers, including Ms Brook, who said that approach did not pass the pub test.
However, other producers believed the Government had to draw a line in the sand somewhere.
Mr Sinodinos said he thought the Government had the balance right.
“We also try and minimise the costs by focusing on those foods that consumers are particularly interested in,” he said.
“Consumers, through the surveys and other feedback, indicated very clearly to us they were less interested in the more processed foods.”
Will the Government rethink labelling laws?
Ms Sayer and producers such as Ms Brook want the Government to rethink the country of origin labelling laws.
They are calling on Mr Sinodinos to extend the deadline for compliance to give smaller producers more time to meet the mounting costs.
They have also suggested that scannable bar codes or smart labels could be an alternative to printing new labels, which would allow consumers who really wanted to know the origins of ingredients to seek out information online.
“The idea is great. I completely agree with the idea that people want to know where their food comes from,” Ms Brook said.
Mr Sinodinos said the Government would monitor the impact of the laws.
“If there are ways to make it easier, we will,” he said