Consumer advocates want more certainty in food labeling.
Consumer advocates want more certainty in food labelling. Photo: Michele Mossop

What are the country of origin labelling requirements in Australia? What foods do they cover, and what level of detail is required?

Typically, product labels contain statements like "made in" and "product of". But it is the ubiquitous and vague "Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients" statement which generates the most confusion among shoppers. Consumer group CHOICE wants it banned. Under current labelling rules the words "made in" means that the product was made in the said country, and at least half of its total production costs were incurred there. Yet it does not guarantee that it contains Australian ingredients, nor shed any light on what proportion of the ingredients are local.

Most food sold in Australia needs to carry country of origin labelling. Labelling requirements apply to packaged and unpackaged food - including unpackaged items like chicken and apples. Sometimes individual pieces of fresh fruit (think oranges from California) carry a label indicating where they are grown; other times a sign nearby in a store indicates where fresh produce is from. But some foods, presumably for reasons of practicality, are exempt from country of origin labelling rules. These include items made for immediate consumption, such as in food outlets.

While the Food Standards Code sets out the labelling standards, the rules covering country of origin claims are laid out in Australian consumer law, and the claims are regulated by the competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Packaged food must carry a label stating either (1) which country the food was grown in, produced or made or (2) the name of the country where the food was made or packed, and that the product is a mix of imported ingredients, or a mix of imported and local ingredients.

Where does the current system leave consumers?

In a word - confused. It also leaves them pretty poorly informed. The proof of this observation is in survey data collected by CHOICE. According to the survey of more than 700 people, barely one in 10 were able to identify the meaning of the term "Made in Australia". A lowly one in four could identify the correct meaning of the term "Product of Australia". It is worth noting these consumers were probably better informed than most - the survey was of paid-up CHOICE members. Numbers like those don't inspire confidence in the system. Imagine, for instance, if just one in 10 motorists on a freeway could understand a 100 km/h speed limit sign.

What do Australian consumers want?

Clearer labels they can read without carrying a magnifying glass along the supermarket aisle. And meaningful statements about where goods are from. In light of the recent hepatitis A scare - where 21 cases of the virus in Australia have been linked to the consumption of Nanna's branded frozen mixed berries imported from China - momentum for better labels has snowballed rapidly.

With encouragement from CHOICE, more than 23,950 people have sent a pro-forma email to federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce urging the government to adopt a better system. The emails state: "Statements like 'Made in Australia using local and imported ingredients' are vague and confusing. We need a framework that puts consumers first, helping us to make informed decisions about where our food comes from. That's why we need a new system, tested to make sure that it's the clearest option for Australian consumers."

What is the federal government proposing to do?

Mr Joyce, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and their federal colleagues seem to have heard the message. On Thursday, the government announced that "better" country of origin labelling rules would be introduced. Mr Joyce said reform of labelling rules was long overdue. "Country of origin labelling should be simple, compulsory, diagrammatical and show proportionality as to where the product is sourced from," he said. Mr Macfarlane said the government would "work with industry groups to ensure the changes are practical, but the intention is to implement both an image and words that can be clearly read and understood".

What do others say?

The response from lobby groups was swift and mostly positive. "The most encouraging thing that we've seen from government today is a willingness to fix the country of origin labelling scheme. We welcome that wholeheartedly. But now the next step needs to be, with any proposal, testing with consumers," CHOICE spokesman Tom Godfrey said.

"What we've got under the current system is vague, confusing descriptions that leave consumers in the dark about where a product is from, where it's manufactured and often where it's packed. This should not be hard ... You should be able to look at a pack and at a glance work out where your food is from."

South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, who has long campaigned for meaningful labelling rules, said the government's announcement flagging a new regime was "a good start". "Australians deserve to know from where their food is coming and to be better protected from imported food that risks their health," he said.

What impact would better, more informative labels have on the sales of Australian-made products?

Farmers believe that the current labelling system costs them sales in Australia's supermarkets. They point to the success the supermarkets have had after putting more Australian-grown tinned fruit on their shelves. And Victorian Farmers Federation president Peter Tuohey said better sales of Australian-grown goods would help families on the land. "The Australian brand definitely sells, so if the brand sells then our producers will benefit," he said.

What might a new labelling system look like?

Mr Macfarlane said he wanted a system that allowed consumers to pick up a product, read the label and know "whether or not that product is grown in Australia, processed in Australia, what percentage of the contents are from here in Australia". The system is likely to involve a compulsory symbol and a printed set of words or description.

What has prompted this change?

There is no doubt that the government has been spurred into action by the 21 cases of hepatitis A across the nation linked to Nanna's branded mixed berries one kilogram packets. While the source of the hepatitis A virus is still not confirmed, the only common exposure for all of the cases is the consumption of the frozen mixed berries. The product is a popular product in kitchens across the nation, where it regularly ends up in smoothies. According to the latest statistics released by health authorities, there are eight cases in Queensland, seven in New South Wales, three in Victoria, one in Western Australia, one in the ACT and one (newly confirmed) in South Australia. A parliamentary committee has also examined how a better labelling system might work.

How sick are the affected people?

Due to privacy reasons, little information about their condition has been released by authorities. Of the three from Victoria, one was treated in hospital and all are said to be recovering.