Richard Calver

The spreading of oil on troubled waters refers to the calming effect oil has on wave action as it spreads over the surface of the sea - an effect that in modern times has a prosecution for environmental damage closely following.

But what if the oil becomes the very troubled water that it is supposed to calm? While this sounds like a question fit for the Mad Hatter, its asking arises from activities at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The ACCC has launched a buying guide, The Good Oil (accc.gov.au), about the different grades of olive oil, as well as some storage tips. I especially like the one about embracing the forces of darkness. It says, ''Keep it in the dark - light will cause the quality of olive oil to deteriorate, so make sure you store your oil away from light in a cool, dark place like in a cupboard or pantry.'' Bravo.

The ACCC wants to be sure that claims such as extra virgin, virgin, pure and light on the label reflect what's in the bottle. The reverse, of course, is the stuff of nightmares.

The ACCC's advice follows enforcement action earlier this year. In May, the Big Olive Company paid infringement notices totalling $13,200 for labelling products as ''extra virgin olive oil'' that the ACCC considered were not. More power to their arm for climbing this slippery slope.

Casting about in this area of the law reveals another current of controversy - claims about where products have been made or grown. The ACCC made it clear that it does not believe there is an essential problem with the labelling classifications. It says the problem is people's understanding of what they mean.

In another publication, Where does Your Food Come From? ''made in Australia'' is explained with a rather sweet example: ''If 'made in Australia' appears on a jar of jam, this means the jam was made in Australia and at least half of the cost of making the jam was incurred in Australia. It doesn't necessarily mean that the ingredients for the jam were grown or sourced in Australia.''

Contrast this with ''product of'' or ''grown in''. This means that each significant ingredient or part of the product originated in the country claimed and almost all of any production also occurred in that country. ''Grown in'' is mostly used for fresh food and ''product of'' is often used for processed food. The example used by the ACCC is that if an apple is labelled as ''grown in'' Australia, it was, well, grown in Australia.

This focus on labelling is important. We are entitled to know whether our food is locally produced, and whether it is what it says it is.

After all, ''the truth is more important than the facts''- Frank Lloyd Wright

>> Richard Calver is legal counsel for Master Builders Australia and a writer.