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What’s in a label? When it comes to country-of-origin, it’s hard to tell

This blog post was written by Tess Wilson, a Membership Consultant with Australian Fitness Network. A former competitive swimmer, Tess is passionate about healthy living and the life-enhancing power of healthy, nourishing and delicious real food.

Can you tell where a food product comes from by reading the label? In most cases the answer is not as clear as it should be. Food labels are regularly awash with perplexing and misleading terminology; making it almost impossible to tell where a product is made or produced.

According to the Food Standards Code, food labels must clearly identify the country in which the product is made or manufactured. Despite this, the claims displayed on food products are evasive and confusing. It is therefore difficult for consumers to make an informed decision when it comes to the food they buy.

Country-of-origin labels often feature claims such as ‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients.’ Claims like this are ambiguous, failing to tell consumers which ingredients are from Australia and which are imported, and also to specify the percentage of the product that is made in Australia. Consequently, consumers who want to support Australian farmers, jobs and companies by purchasing locally grown and produced foods – not to mention reduce the environmental impact of their food decisions by eating products that have travelled less distance – are not given the information to do so.

In 2012 consumer advocacy group CHOICE conducted a survey to determine the importance of food labelling for consumers. According to survey findings, 84 per cent of respondents said that it was crucial or very important to be able to confidently identify whether or not food was grown in Australia.

Confusing terminology on food labels creates a barrier to making informed decisions about what we buy; an issue that, according to the survey led by CHOICE, is highly important to the majority of Australian consumers. In response, CHOICE launched a campaign calling for a simplified country-of-origin food labelling system that would see the confusing terminology replaced with clearly defined claims that can be easily understood by consumers.

According to CHOICE spokesman Tom Godfrey, ‘it is time to give consumers the information they want, remove the information they don’t, and test the way we label our food to make sure it’s meaningful.’

The government’s country-of-origin labelling system came under further attack in February this year after a hepatitis A outbreak from frozen berries that were predominantly grown and packed in China. In response, the Prime Minister put together a task force of ministers to present a new country-of-origin labelling proposal to cabinet. After a four-month development and consultation process, Tony Abbott unveiled a new labelling regime aimed at ending the confusion around country-of-origin classifications.

However, is this new proposal in the best interest of consumers? What changes have been made and will they enable Australians to make more informed decisions at the supermarket?

The Australian government’s new country-of-origin food labels integrate the existing ‘Made in Australia’ green and gold kangaroo with a yellow sliding scale that specifies whether a product was grown or made in Australia and the percentage of local ingredients. The planned label showing where ingredients come from indicates the percentage of a food product’s ingredients that come from Australia. This percentage is calculated by mass and represented by the sliding scale and text.

While this addition is a step in the right direction, allowing consumers to understand the percentage of ingredients sourced in Australia, the label fails to indicate where the ingredients come from when they are not local. For example, claims such as ‘made in Australian from more than 50% Australian ingredients’ does not indicate where the remaining percentage of ingredients come from.

Therefore, under the new labelling laws, which are initially voluntary followed by a mandatory roll-out in 2016 provided states and territories agree to the proposal, there is no way for consumers to identify where ingredients are sourced from, unless the product is made entirely from local ingredients.

According to CHOICE, the new labels are a constructive step towards combating confusion around country-of-origin labelling, especially for consumers who want to know how much of a product is manufactured or grown locally. 

For more information on CHOICE’s take on the new labels click HERE.

As long as you know what ingredients – and what percentage of ingredients – are locally produced, do you care which country the other ingredients come from? Or would you use the new labels to help you buy more products that are made only with Australian ingredients?
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