The country’s biggest food retailer, Woolworths, says it’s ready to work with the government to improve food-labelling laws, amid expectations graphics indicating the percentages of Australian and imported content in food will be introduced.

In the wake of the hepatitis A outbreak that has been linked to imported frozen berries, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce have been asked to prepare a submission on country-of-origin food-labelling laws for cabinet by the end of March.

Senator Joyce has said existing laws don’t work and people – judging by the 220,000 emails he has received – want them changed.

But Australian Retailers Association executive director  Russell Zimmeman said the proposed changes were unclear and “probably mean more red tape”. The association’s members include supermarkets, Bakers Delight Bakery and the Coffee Club.


Gary Dawson, chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, which represents packaged food, drink and grocery manufacturers, said it would be talking to the government to “get the balance right between cost and complexity”.

Mr Dawson said it was important not to overlook the value of food made in Australia, not just grown here. Food and beverage manufacturing employs about 220,000 people, about half of whom are in regional Australia, he said.

He said providing percentages of Australian versus imported content “doesn’t tell the consumer where the product comes from” and any changes would need to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

Woolworths chief executive Grant O’Brien said on Friday the supermarket was “willing and ready to work alongside government to look at improving labelling in this country”.

“Anything that’s going to improve the ability for consumers to be informed on the products they buy, we’re more than up for and have been proactive on in the past and will continue to be in the future.”

Coles, Australia’s second-largest supermarket chain, did not respond to a request for comment on its thoughts on proposed changes.

But Richard Goyder, the chief executive of Coles’s parent company Wesfarmers, said  recently that although Coles had “always supported” labelling that made clear a product’s country of origin and contents, Australia should avoid changes to labelling laws that led to higher prices.

The frozen berries sold by listed food company Patties Foods have yet to be confirmed as the cause of the hepatitis A outbreak. All frozen berries sold in Australia are imported.

A recent Senate inquiry into food labelling made eight recommendations, including introducing a “visual descriptor that reflects the safe harbour thresholds of Australian ingredients in the content of a product”.

It also suggested five classifications: “Grown in”, “Product of”, “Made in [country] from [country] ingredients”, “Made in [country] from mostly local ingredients”, and “Made in [country] from mostly imported ingredients”.

When asked  whether changes would cause business costs to rise, amid comments from food manufacturer Simplot that its costs would increase by $2 million to $6 million, Senator Joyce said: “Well, you know, I’m always sceptical about those calls and I tell you why.

“You pick up a packet, go into your cupboard now and pick up a packet and you will see essential daily intake, how much it weighs, what its use-by date is, how much carbohydrates, in some a thiamine rice, in some halal certification, there is a heap of regulation attached to that piece of paper,” he told the ABC’s 730 program.
Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.