A new survey to identify consumers’ understanding of country of origin food labelling has found that almost all Australians cannot make sense of what they read, and out of those that can, knowing the origin is much more important for fresh food than for processed products.
Compiled by consumer advocate group Choice, the research revealed that almost three-quarters of the 700 respondents considered it crucial to know where the fresh meat they buy is produced. The figure is slightly less for fresh fruit and vegetables, at 67% and 68% for seafood.
Yet at the same time just 13% of respondents said it was critical to know the origin of confectionery, 15% for soft drinks and cordials and 17% for snack foods.
The research also revealed that nine out of 10 Australians do not know where their food comes from, suggesting that current labelling is not working, and prompting Choice to wade in with proposals for a new standard for country of origin labelling.
According to choice, the current system falls a long way short of the standard required for consumers to make informed choices.
“Of the 700 respondents, just 12% were able to accurately identify the meaning of ‘Made in Australia’, while only 3% knew the correct definition of ‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients’. Foods labelled ‘Product of Australia’ didn’t fare much better—only a quarter of respondents identified the correct meaning, while only 8% understood the meaning of ‘Australian grown’,” said the report.
Despite this poor understanding, a massive 85% of respondents said it was crucial or very important for them to be able to identify if the food they buy has been grown in Australia.
While a third of survey respondents said they always buy Australian food when available, 62% said they try to buy Australian but their decision depends on factors including the type of food and price.
Of those who aim to buy Australian instead of imported food, popular reasons for doing so include the better overall quality, less exposure to chemicals and pesticides during the production process, and the negative environmental impacts associated with overseas products.
Solution of Choice
Choice has developed a simplified approach to country of origin labelling that restricts claims to three categrories: a premium claim covering ingredients and manufacturing, a premium claim about manufacturing alone and a general claim to cover products that do not meet the requirements of the two premium claims. This last category could use language like “Packaged in” to indicate that minimal manufacturing was done in the country claimed.
“Our proposal would rule out vague qualifications like ‘local and imported ingredients’, which do not provide enough detail to help consumers make informed decisions,” said Choice.
“Food companies would only be allowed to provide information about ingredients in addition to a manufacturing claim if they specify a characterising ingredient and the actual country of its origin. For example, a frozen stir-fry vegetable mix that currently states ‘Packaged in Australia from local and imported ingredients’ could say "Packaged in Australia from Australian broccoli and carrots’.”
Choice will now start to campaign for federal, state and territory governments to support its proposed reforms.
Have your say: What do you think about the current standard of country-of-origin food labelling in Australia. Is there room for improvement. Let us know in the box below.