Country of origin a source of confusion

Consumers don't fare well when it comes to deciphering food origin labels.
 
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01 .Why consumers are ill-informed about country of origin

Country of origin labelling

New survey data collected by CHOICE highlights a gap between the current Country of Origin (CoO) food-labelling system and the standard required to ensure consumers can make informed decisions.

Results of our survey of more than 700 members who regularly shop for food for their household show understanding of CoO labels is poor, and that the absence of clear definitions leaves consumers ill-informed about where their food actually comes from. Of the respondents, only 12% were able to accurately identify the meaning of “Made in Australia”. Foods labelled “Product of Australia” didn’t fare much better – only a quarter of respondents identified the correct meaning, while only eight per cent of respondents understood the meaning of “Australian grown”.

Despite this poor understanding, 85% of respondents said it was crucial or very important for them to be able to identify if the food they buy has been grown in Australia.

Why buy Australian?

While a third of survey respondents said they always buy Australian food when available, 62% said they try to buy Australian but their decision depends on factors including the type of food and price.

Of those who aim to buy Australian instead of imported food, popular reasons for doing so include the better overall quality, less exposure to chemicals and pesticides during the production process, and the negative environmental impacts associated with overseas products.

Conversely, one of the most widespread reasons cited for buying an overseas product instead of an Australian one was the reputation of that country or region for a particular type of food. This was also a frequently cited reason for favouring a local product over a foreign one, along with the desire to support Australian farmers, keep local manufacturing jobs and support Australian companies.

The survey also found knowing the origin of food is more important for fresh food and less so for processed foods. For example, of shoppers who take country of origin into account, 73% said it was crucial to know the origin of fresh meat they purchase, 67% said this was the case when it came to fresh fruit and vegetables and 68% for seafood. Yet just 13% of respondents said it was critical to know the origin of confectionery, 15% for soft drinks and cordials, and 17% for snack foods.

 
 

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More than three-quarters of respondents bought Australian food because they want to support Australian farmers and 66% said an important reason for purchasing domestic products was to keep manufacturing jobs in Australia. The desire to support local companies led 65% of respondents to buy local products, while concerns about chemicals and pesticides used in food produced overseas was a key reason for purchasing Australian groceries in 55% of respondents.

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Country of origin in the supermarket aisle

The most common reasons cited by respondents as influencing them to buy an Australian food product instead of an overseas one include:

  • Australian reputation for a particular food type
  • Better overall quality
  • Better choice for the environment
  • Fewer chemicals and pesticides used in production
  • More ethically produced.

The most commonly cited reasons for choosing overseas over Australian food included:

  • Cheaper price
  • Overseas country or region's reputation for a particular type of food.

What does it mean to you?

  • 12% of respondents know the correct meaning of "Made in Australia"
  • 25% of respondents understand the meaning of "Product of Australia"
  • 8% know the correct definition of "Australian grown".
  • 88% of respondents say it is crucial or very important to be able to identify whether food has been grown in Australia.
  • 80% of respondents say it is crucial or very important to be able to identify whether food has been manufactured in Australia.

CHOICE has developed a simplified approach to country of origin labelling which we want to see government adopt in place of the current confusing system. Our proposal would restrict the claims allowed on food products to these three claims:

  • A premium claim covering both ingredients and manufacturing, like the current "Grown in" and "Product of" claims, which require all significant ingredients and virtually all processing to be done in the country mentioned.
  • A premium claim about manufacturing alone, like the current "Made in" claim, which sets a high standard for the amount of processing that must be done in the country mentioned. CHOICE thinks "Manufactured in" would more clearly indicate to consumers that the claim doesn't cover ingredients.
  • A general claim to cover products which don’t meet the requirements for the two premium claims, using wording like "Packaged in" to indicate that minimal manufacturing was done in the country claimed. This would be useful for products which have numerous ingredients and inputs from multiple countries.

CHOICE believes the wording of the three claims should be determined in consultation with industry and through consumer testing to ensure that the claims are easily understood.

Importantly, our proposal would rule out vague qualifications like "local and imported ingredients", which do not provide enough detail to help consumers make informed decisions. Food companies would only be allowed to provide information about ingredients in addition to a manufacturing claim if they specify a characterising ingredient and the actual country of its origin. For example, a frozen stir-fry vegetable mix that currently states "Packaged in Australia from local and imported ingredients" could say "Packaged in Australia from Australian broccoli and carrots".

Consumer education around the new approach to food origin labelling would help shoppers understand what the claims mean. By reducing the number of claims and improving the wording, consumer education is much more likely to be effective.

CHOICE is seeking support for our proposed reforms and asking government to commit to clearing up the confusion surrounding food country-of-origin labelling.

If you support CHOICE’s campaign for clearer country of labelling on food products, sign up as a campaign supporter today! 

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