Most diners wrongly assume the seafood they are served in restaurants comes are fished from Australian waters, and need to be "protected from deception", the seafood industry says.
Nearly three-quarters of the seafood consumed by Australians is shipped from overseas, leading seafood producers told a parliamentary committee examining country of origin labelling laws.
In the case of barramundi, a national favourite, 60 per cent of the 20,000 tonnes savoured by Australians each year is sourced from foreign fisheries, research by the Australian Barramundi Farmers Association showed.
The heads of four major seafood bodies, including the National Seafood Industry Alliance, want seafood labelling laws to be extended to the restaurant industry, which is exempt.
Country of origin information should be published next to seafood dishes on menus so that consumers can be “protected from deception", they said.
“When people order barramundi, they just think it’s Australian,” said Scott Wiseman of the Seafood Industry Alliance. “There’s a requirement to know the fish species, but not whether it’s Australian. They have the right to make a full purchasing decision.”
Confusion also runs rampant with popular seafood such as red emperor, whiting, flathead, Spanish mackerel, prawns and squid, the Northern Territory Seafood Council said. "This list goes on, all species produced within Australia and assumed by the consumer to be Australian product."
But John Hart, chief executive of the Restaurant and Catering industry group, said it would be “onerous and expensive” for eateries to provide the information.
“It would cost $300 million per annum to introduce such a change,” he told the committee, referring to costs linked with updating menus, reconfiguring back-end systems and maintaining compliance. “The menu would read more like a book, having labelling provisions for every ingredient."
Restaurateurs seldom, if at all, specified which country they wanted their seafood from when placing orders with suppliers, he said.
“They rarely say, 'I want to order 20 kilos of Australian prawns'. They would ring up and say, 'I want 20 kilograms of 60/90 prawns'.”
Helen Jenkins of the Australian Prawn Farmers Association said the Northern Territory had successfully applied labelling of origin laws to all its food sectors, including restaurants, in 2008. It remains the only jurisdiction to do so.
“It’s time for uniformity across Australia,” she said. "We'd like it to be legislated."
Mr Hart from Restaurant and Catering conceded that the NT law had become accepted after “a rocky road to start with”, but firmly rejected the call for a nationwide rollout.
He said research of dining behaviour showed the country of origin of a product did not feature among the top factors that swayed purchasing decisions.
“We ranked a number of different factors, included origin, local produce, nutritional content. They were the eighth, ninth order issues. Primary order issue was the quality of product,” he said.
The seafood industry was represented by Marty Phillips of the Australian Barramundi Farmers Association, Ms Jenkins of the Australian Prawn Farmers Association, Rob Fish of the Northern Territory Seafood Council and Mr Wiseman of the National Seafood Industry Alliance.