Of the main consumer concerns canvassed in the consultation paper, it is reported that Australian consumers particularly want to know at time of food product purchase the proportion of ingredients grown in Australia. The relatively vague regulations currently in force do not demand this specific information.
Industry claims on food packaging often include statements such as ‘made in Australia’, ‘product of Australia’, ‘produced in Australia’, ‘grown in Australia’, ‘manufactured in Australia’, or otherwise incorporate the use of licensed or unlicensed logos depicting the Australian flag, Australian map, or Australian animals. There is no governed consistency in the use of these statements or logos, and unsurprisingly, confusion is noted in the paper as a common occurrence. In a world of increasing demand for visual indicators (such as with nutritional information requirements), inconsistent font size and positioning of country of origin information also adds to the confusion.
Such confusion is apparently not isolated to consumers. The paper notes that businesses are also impacted in circumstances where they may make ‘conservative claims because they don’t understand that they might be eligible for a stronger claim or because a stronger claim may be harder or more costly to prove.’
The consultation paper discusses the idea of displaying origin information by reference to a proportion of ingredients, including ways in which a consistent framework could be implemented. What is clear, however, is that at this stage and without input from both consumers and businesses, there is no obvious solution which benefits all parties.
For example, consideration must be given to:
- how the proportion should be expressed (i.e. as an exact percentage or an average amount over time);
- how the information can be updated to take seasonally-demanded substitution of ingredients into account;
- what the cost of including this information on products will be;
- whether visual indicators should be used, or simple text statements;
- how a consistent approach will be implemented; and
- whether this requirement will apply to all food products
The paper also discusses the possibility of an alternative requirement, where a list of ‘key’ ingredients is included on food labels which states the specific country where each ingredient was grown. However this raises some of the same concerns outlined above. In addition, regard must be had to what would be considered a ‘key’ ingredient, and how the information would be clearly represented and still fit on a product label.
Also discussed are the current safe harbour defences, with particular attention on:
- the effect of more specific labelling requirements;
- whether, and to what extent, these new requirements would be applied to imported goods;
- the role of digital information in light of any new laws and regulations; and
- the importance of education and increasing awareness to reduce consumer and business confusion going forward.