The issue that currently generates most controversy for NZFSA is country of origin labelling. My second column sets out to briefly outline why we believe that voluntary labelling, rather than a legislated programme, is a better option for New Zealand consumers.
Today, the food industry is global, with products grown and harvested in one country, processed in another and packaged in a third. We all welcome the variety of products we can select in our supermarket trolleys and, as our taste for exotic and out of season foods grows, it is likely that more and more of the food we eat, or the ingredients in it, will originate in other countries.
We know however that some people believe food produced in some other countries may carry risks or they may wish to buy local or avoid products from certain places for other reasons.
In our Statement of Intent, we maintain that we are committed to providing information that enables consumers to make choices. It may seem difficult to reconcile this commitment with our support for a voluntary labelling programme. We are not at all opposed to consumers having information about the country of origin of their food, but we do know how difficult and expensive it is to provide it for all foods, particularly under a legislated programme. We think there are better ways to achieve what consumers are seeking than to impose regulations that would add costs and inevitably increase food prices.
Most of the concerns that have been raised about country of origin labelling relate to single ingredient fresh foods – garlic, pork, prawns and vegetables.
Our view is that the market should respond to consumer preferences and buying patterns and interestingly, we are seeing a great response to these sorts of commercial pressures in voluntary country of origin labelling. Earlier this year, the two major New Zealand supermarket chains, Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises, developed an initiative to provide country of origin information for single ingredient fresh foods in the fruit, vegetable, meat and seafood categories. Simple, low cost voluntary measures like this are a significant step in the right direction, with the market responding to consumer demand and an example we believe works well for consumers.
More complex products present much more difficult issues for producers, government and consumers alike. For example, as New Zealand does not grow sugar and only a small proportion of our flour is local, under a labelling system similar to the Australian one, products such as canned fruit, baked goods and confectionery could only be labelled “Made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients”. This doesn’t tell anyone very much at all and will not help those consumers who wish to avoid products or ingredients from countries they have concerns about, however justified those concerns might be.
Providing more detailed and accurate information in multi-ingredient products while possible, is difficult and expensive. Even in simple cases, for instance knowing whether the sugar in a particular batch of canned peaches originated in Australia or Fiji or elsewhere, is difficult for manufacturers, expensive when they need to change the labels, and almost impossible for a regulator to verify.
New Zealand manufacturers can use ‘product of New Zealand’ labelling right now. Pork producers already do this and others will do so if they see a commercial advantage. These initiatives are in line with our policy for voluntary labelling.
Mislabelled products are regulated through the Fair Trading Act and the Commerce Commission takes action to ensure such falsification is addressed.
The power is always with consumers. If you are interested in the origin of the product and the label does not clearly indicate this, then you have the option of not buying that product and selecting something that does meet your requirements. The market will respond to clear signals like this.
Knowing where a food originated does not tell anyone whether it is safe or not - all food sold in New Zealand must comply with our strict food safety laws, regardless of whether it is locally produced or imported.
We have a very good fact sheet outlining in more detail our views on this topic. It can be found at www.nzfsa.govt.nz/consumers/food-labelling/country-of-origin/ and I would encourage you to take the time to read it.
Knowing the cost pressures we all face in providing nutritious meals for our families, safe, affordable food will always be our goal.
NZFSA Chief Executive
[Last updated 28 November 2008]