Recent changes to the Australian Country of Origin Food Labelling Information Standard 2016 (“CoOL”) was no doubt influenced by the notorious frozen berry scare in Australia in 2015, which allegedly linked a hepatitis A outbreak to imported frozen berries. This generated public interest in transparency in origin of food labelling. The changes will have a significant effect on businesses that market unpackaged goods, bringing these goods into parity with packaged foods. This means that along with the removal of mandatory minimum font sizes, CoOL information displayed in association with unpackaged food must be legible, prominent, distinctive, and in English. The changes also require signage displayed in association with unpackaged food to be in close proximity to the relevant product.
Additionally, the ACCC has also now provided a guide for businesses that make country of origin claims. The old system only required product labels to state if the product is made from imported and local ingredients. This created a loophole, by which businesses could imply that the products are mostly of Australian origin, even though most of the ingredients are foreign. By way of one extreme example, a can of mushrooms could be labeled as made from local and imported ingredients, even though only the water they are preserved in is sourced from Australia. The mushrooms themselves could be imported from another country.
Under the new Country of Origin Food Labelling Standard, country of origin claims can be made using one of four different categories. More or less in order of the strongest to weakest connection to a country, these are: “Grown in”, “Product of”, “Made in”, and “Packed in”.
However, there are valid concerns coming from producers both small and large scale about the compliance costs of detailed labelling, especially on unpackaged foods. Also of note are producers of products that are affected by seasonality and availability of ingredients, such as butter. The availability of butter in Australia is not consistent, and there are times of the year when producers need to purchase some of their ingredients overseas. The concern is not so much the cost but the impossibility of changing labels and packaging every time they need to source their ingredients from somewhere else.
Another complaint is that highly processed foods and drinks are exempt from the new laws. The Government notes that this exemption was made because research shows that consumers did not necessarily care too much about the country of origin of highly processed food and drinks, such as biscuits, softdrinks, alcohol, snacks, confectionary etc, so they made these “non-priority” products exempt from the laws. (Which seems intuitively remarkable, that a consumer would not care of lemonade was made in China or Australia.)