Country of origin labelling (CoOL) of food (including seafood) is an issue that has attracted concern and controversy over many years. The Government’s new country of origin labelling requirements take effect on 1 July 2016, but do not address concerns about the exemption of seafood sold for immediate consumption by restaurants, cafes and other food vendors from mandatory CoOL requirements.
A number of reviews into food labelling have examined that issue. The Blewett Review in 2011 recommended against extending CoOL to foods sold in restaurants. However, a 2014 inquiry by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee (the Senate Inquiry) into the labelling of seafood and seafood products recommended:
…the exemption regarding country of origin labelling… for cooked or pre-prepared seafood sold by the food services sector be removed…
Whilst there have been a number of recent reforms to CoOL regulation by the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions, no uniform approach to CoOL for seafood sold for immediate consumption by restaurants, cafes and other food vendors exists.
Current Regulatory Framework
The current requirement for CoOL on packaged and unpackaged seafood is set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Food Code).Each state and territory has enacted Food Acts requiring compliance with the Food Code. The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 also prohibits misleading or deceptive conduct and misleading representations, including in relation to the place of origin of food. Importantly, the Food Code provides an exemption from CoOL requirements on food offered for immediate consumption and food sold at restaurants, canteens and similar venues.
What is the problem?
As there is no requirement to indicate the country of origin of seafood sold for immediate consumption, consumers lack easy access to information that would enable them to make informed decisions about what seafood to purchase.
A number of industry representatives have expressed concern about exempting food (and especially seafood) sold for immediate consumption from CoOL requirements. A majority of submitters to the Senate Inquiry ‘argued that the labelling exemption on cooked or pre-prepared seafood created a void in the information provided to the consumer’. The Northern Territory Seafood Council note that Australian consumers ‘want to buy Australian products if they can and many are prepared to pay more for Australian seafood’. Currently, however, more than 70% of seafood consumed by Australians is imported, and not necessarily labelled as such when sold for immediate consumption.
The Northern Territory’s approach to the problem
All establishments in the Northern Territory that sell seafood for public consumption must hold a licence under the Fisheries Act 2008. In 2008 the Northern Territory Government introduced licence conditions requiring that all seafood be advertised as ‘imported’ if it has been harvested outside Australia, or if it is a mixed seafood dish containing imported seafood.
A survey referenced in the Senate Inquiry indicates a high level of support for this type of initiative among both consumers and the food services sector. Many proprietors saw labelling as a positive opportunity to actively market seafood on their menus. According to the Senate Inquiry, the Northern Territory approach ‘demonstrated that seafood labelling would be beneficial to consumers, the local fishing industry and the national economy’.
To implement a similar approach across Australia, the Senate Report recommended that the labelling exemption in the Food Code for cooked or pre-prepared seafood sold by the food services sector be removed.
The Commonwealth Government’s approach to the problem
The Government’s new country of origin labelling requirements made under section 134 of the Australian Consumer Law takes effect on 1 July 2016. As it effectively replicates the current Food Code labelling requirements – including the exemption for food prepared for immediate consumption – it does not address the problem. Whilst additional requirements are to be applied to ‘priority foods’ (including seafood) such as requiring food to bear CoOL information using detailed visual logos and bar-charts, those requirements will not apply to seafood sold for immediate consumption.
This change has two implications. Firstly, as the CoOL requirements in the Food Code will soon be redundant, removing the exemption for food sold for immediate consumption would have no effect. Secondly, the exemption could also be removed from the new standard, but the proposed visual requirements are unlikely to work in menus, menu-boards or other advertising materials.
Other proposed approaches to address the problem
In March 2015, the Greens and crossbenchers, including Senator Nick Xenophon, introduced a Bill to implement the Senate Inquiry’s recommendations. The Bill proposed amending the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991 to provide a standard which would require fish sold for immediate consumption to be labelled according to existing CoOL requirements.
In August 2015, the Senate rejected the Bill, with Coalition and ALP Senators voting against it. According to Senator Scullion, one of the reasons the Bill was opposed is that ‘it is actually the responsibility of the states and territories’. Indeed, similar policies have recently arisen at the state level. On 27 May 2016 Deputy Premier of New South Wales, Troy Grant, announced a scheme at the NSW Nationals annual conference for labelling imported fish and fish products in restaurants and cafes.
A way forward?
Whilst the Northern Territory approach of simple ‘imported’ labelling appears to be a more suitable model for informing consumers about where their seafood comes from, it is one that faces barriers to national implementation. Hence it would appear that any steps to address the problem are more likely to occur at the state or territory, rather than national, level.
* This FlagPost was prepared by Adrienne Elmitt, an intern from the Australian National University.