Country of Origin labelling review confirms government is out of touch with market reality

A Federal Government review of Australia’s Country of Origin Labelling (CoOL) has been slammed as short-sighted, risk-averse and out of touch with market reality after the government decided to sit on its hands.

In announcing the findings, the review committee found that the current scheme was effective and recommended no major changes at this time, despite ongoing calls from industry that the rules don’t offer any protection for consumers in food service environments.

In retail environments labelling must be clear and identify the Country of Origin of the product, but as soon as the packaging is opened, those laws go in the bin, right alongside the packaging.

Unfortunately, the review committee failed to recognise this gap and has said it would support “exploring voluntary options for CoOL in food service, particularly seafood” – which essentially means States can do their own thing.

WA Fishing Industry Council CEO, Darryl Hockey said this decision flew in the face of common sense and was in direct conflict with consumer protections.

“When you buy seafood in a supermarket, it must legally inform its country of origin so consumers know what they are buying, but according to the review, somehow as soon as that package is opened those laws should no longer apply.

“Under these rules, a café or restaurant can sell imported seafood from unsustainable sources without even identifying the type of species or country of origin, with no risk of recourse.

“As an example, a consumer could be buying Basa fillets bred in a third-world swamp and as long as it’s sold in a food service outlet, Australian consumers have no right to know its source and have no way of checking. How is that acceptable?”

Adding to the confusion, the Ministerial statement announcing the findings states in its opening line that “It is important Australians know where their food products are made and what proportion comes from Australian grown ingredients”.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply when it is sold through food service outlets, despite the fact that 62 per cent of consumers indicated their support for the extension of Country of Origin Labelling requirements to the foodservice sector,” Darryl said.

The Government confirms it sees merit in exploring voluntary origin labelling options to assist food service businesses to provide consumers with greater food origin information. The review noted this information is particularly relevant for seafood because “consumers often care about the origin of their seafood more than other food types.”

Unfortunately, the review doesn’t translate into acting on this realisation.

Consumers who supported the extension of CoOL requirements did so for a variety of foodservice

business types with between 60 per cent and 70 per cent support in each case. The support for extension to fast-food and takeaway establishments was even higher, at 69 per cent of all consumers surveyed.

Riding on this complacency are additional realisations with no real actions, including:

  • Recognising business and consumer concerns that the ‘Made in’ claim can be misunderstood, in retail environments, and
  • Exploring options to strengthen consumer understanding and business compliance with the CoOL scheme.

The review also recommends continuing to monitor the efficiency and effectiveness of the scheme.

Not surprisingly, the Deloitte evaluation process, which took 12 months and cost more than $670,000 found that the CoOL reforms:

  • were implemented well
  • have made it easier for consumers to get clear information about the origin of the food they buy
  • achieved their objective without imposing excessive ongoing costs onto business.

In other words, the Federal government responded to the overwhelming concerns of the community by setting up a review which concluded that “there’s nothing to see here”.

However, we believe that consumers have the right to make informed choices about the seafood they buy in restaurants and fish & chip shops.  Already over 70% of seafood consumed in Australia is imported, so we need to ensure that second-class imported fish isn’t being served to customers who were of the belief that it is local.

“We can’t afford to have consumers having bad eating experiences which deter them from seeking high-quality local fish in the future.

This is a clear case of short-sided lack of leadership from the Federal government, they have let down the interests of Australian consumers as well as the local seafood industry as a whole,” Darryl said.