The move comes in the wake of a hepatitis A outbreak apparently linked to frozen mixed berries from China that were packed in Australia.
There have so far been 18 cases of hepatitis A in Australia and it is still not currently known if there is a direct link between the berries and the virus. The company at the centre of the outbreak, Patties Foods, is still working with health authorities to ascertain the cause.
"At the moment we're just dealing with facts and we are working very closely with advice from the health department," said chief executive Steven Chaur. "We still need to get more information around whether there is indeed a direct link.”
Growing pressure for review
Consumer group Choice, along with independent senator Nick Xenophon, the Greens party and farmers, have led calls for an urgent independent review of labelling regulations.
Last week, before the hepatitis news turned into a major storm, Abbott said was not keen to revisit labelling laws, even though a standing committee recommended in October that the country-of-origin regime needed to change.
"The last thing I want to do is put a whole lot of additional requirements on business that will make their life very, very difficult and which will raise unreasonably prices to consumers," he told ABC at the time.
Having changed tack, the prime minister has now called on Ian Macfarlane, of the industry ministry, and agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce to tackle the issue.
"For too long, people have been talking about country-of-origin labelling and nothing much has changed," Abbott said.
"Plainly, whenever we have a problem with imported food in particular, people want to know more about where their food, where their products are coming from.”
Alternatives ‘urgently’ needed
Joyce acknowledged that the issue was “urgent”, though any changes to the regulations would come with costs, he warned.
"It's quite clear what [Australians] want. They want something that is simple, they want something that is diagrammatic, they want something that delivers proportionality and they want something that's compulsory,” said Joyce.
Instead of labels simply stating that a product contained a mix of local and imported ingredients, labels should employ a tiered system indicating the percentage of Australian products it contains, he added. This could appear in the form of a pie chart or symbols.
Macfarlane and Joyce’s submission on country-of-origin labelling will be passed on to the cabinet by the end of March, the prime minister said.