The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Australian and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council have agreed to undertake a comprehensive review of food labelling and its policies.
Former federal Health Minister Dr Neal Blewett will conduct the review, which will include two rounds of public consultations and address issues, including the accuracy, truthfulness and consistency of labelling; enforcement of labelling laws across jurisdictions; the cost to business and consumers in meeting labelling standards; and the difficulty consumers have in understanding and using the information contained on food labels.
“We felt that we needed a plan that laid down principles and criteria to provide future ministers with some policy reference to making specific decisions rather than just make them ad hoc,” Blewett told .
The ongoing battle surrounding the issue of food labelling has many sides and attempts to determine what is appropriate and what should be mandatory for food manufactures to include on packaging, as well as to resolve any confusion for consumers. Recent industry cases help illustrate the dilemma faced by manufacturers and government and industry bodies.
Last month, Standards Australia, in collaboration with the Australian Olive Association, called for the need to develop a national standard for olive oil because they said consumers are paying for premium-grade olive oil when, in many cases, what they’re buying is either a lower grade or not olive oil at all.
Another, more extreme, example saw Australia’s largest smallgoods manufacturer Primo charged with falsely labelling imported pork products as Australian. The NSW Food Authority found that imported pork middles were processed by Primo and labelled as “Product of Australia” and “Meat content 100% Australian.” The company pleaded guilty to 63 charges under the NSW Food Act 2003 relating to the packaging and the labelling of its meat and was fined $233,325 plus $200,000 in costs.
Geoffrey Annison, deputy chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), said the food industry has been asking for the review for some time in order to avoid such situations.
“Food labelling has essentially become a battleground in the food industry,” he said, adding that the review will help bring consistency that current laws and policies related to food labelling lack.
“It’s mainly to make sure that the food industry can respond to consumer and community needs on food labels in their own way, but also to recognise that the government has a fundamental role to mandate information, particularly for public health and safety protection.”
In other words, the government also looks to identify issues that lie outside of food safety, but that still fall within the government’s responsibility, continued Annison.
Country of origin labelling, gene technology labelling – which reveals when there is genetic material in the food that might be modified – and labelling based on welfare concerns, e.g. environmental concerns about carbon footprint labelling, are issues Annison raised that fit within the categories of consumer choice and the right to know.
The first round of the Blewett Review commenced in October 2009 and asked the public to identify the food labelling issues it wanted considered in the review. The review panel received 6,000 submissions, many of which addressed four main issues: food technology; ingredients, including additives and allergy concerns; presentation of information on labels; and the enforcement of consistent food labelling.
“We might have ideas about labelling, but it was pretty important we got some insight into what consumers, what government agencies, what the industry, what medical professionals thought about labelling,” Blewett said. “And that was really a starting point to facing up to the issues.”
One of those submissions came from the AFGC. It explored the need for a national food policy to be consistent with international food trade obligations, the idea for the use of voluntary codes in food labelling and the need for clarity where food-labelling regulations intersect with other regulations.
“There are specific food regulations [that are mandatory], but there are also other regulations like the Trades Practices Act and also the Weights and Measures Act that govern food labelling,” Annison said. “They don’t always meld together.”
Following the first round of responses, the panel initiated a second and final public consultation, addressing issues on what people wanted from food labelling, including useful information on packaged, canned, processed and fresh foods. This resulted in another 700 written submissions from businesses, organisations and individuals, including Mars Australia, Fonterra Australia, Biological Farmers of Australia, New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, Anaphylaxis Australia and South Australian Independent Senator Nick Xenephon.
Blewett said the panel hopes to have proposals in response to the feedback in March 2011.
“We hope to be able to respond with proposals that will deal with some of the issues that consumers have raised,” he continued. “This might impose extra burdens on industry, but at least it will provide a more effective framework in the way the industry does its labelling.”
Annison said he hopes the final document will put food labelling as a battleground well behind the industry, as well as develop a transparent framework.
Not only to the food industry but to the community and consumers as to what information they can reasonably expect from food packs and what information the industry can reasonably be expected to provide. Ultimately it’s making sure consumers have all the information they need one way or another to make the choices they need to construct healthy diets.”