How do you know where your food comes from? Most of us rely on the packaging or promotions from supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths. These companies say they're committed to sourcing their private label products from Australia, but there's more to the story, as CHOICE discovers.

In a 2012 investigation, CHOICE looked at more than 360 grocery products from a range of categories including cereals, biscuits, snacks, tinned goods and frozen packaged food, comparing private label products to their market leader equivalents. Although some brands and ingredients have changed since then, our research is still a useful guide to grocery sourcing in today's market.

Imported food for thought

How do you know where your food comes from? Most of us rely on the packaging or promotions from supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths. These companies say they're committed to sourcing their private label products from Australia, but there's more to the story, as CHOICE discovers.

In a 2012 investigation, CHOICE looked at more than 360 grocery products from a range of categories including cereals, biscuits, snacks, tinned goods and frozen packaged food, comparing private label products to their market leader equivalents. Although some brands and ingredients have changed since then, our research is still a useful guide to grocery sourcing in today's market.

Where does your food come from?

The current system for identifying country-of-origin is full of confusing terminology and loopholes, and this lack of clarity leaves consumers relying on voluntary certification schemes and logos. These problems were recognised by a 2011 independent review of food labelling, which recommended significant improvements to country-of-origin requirements.

CHOICE believes that consumers have a fundamental right to make informed decisions about the food they eat. People who wish to buy Australian, and in some cases pay a premium for doing so, should know they are getting what they pay for.

Who cares?

Research by Roy Morgan in 2013 suggested that consumers are caring more and more about buying Australian-made. 55% of people polled say that buying Australian-made goods was more important to them at the time than it had been a year earlier. Similarly, 83% of CHOICE members surveyed in 2011 told us that buying 'Australian-owned' is important to them.

'Made in Australia' – the definition

For products to claim they are "made" in Australia, they must have undergone substantial transformation and 50% of processing costs here. If the product includes ingredients from outside Australia, or the specified country of origin, "imported ingredients" must be noted on the packaging, however the exact source of such ingredients is not required.

Coles and Woolworths – not so true blue

Although our two biggest supermarket chains are committed to stocking a significant proportion of Australian products in their fresh produce sections, the patriotism is not so easy to find in some other aisles.

Coles' parent company Wesfarmers noted in their 2013 annual report that over 90% of Coles brand food and drink is Australian made or grown. Similarly the Woolworths Sustainable Strategy for 2007-15 claims Woolies remains "committed to our long-standing policy of giving preference to Australian vendors who can meet our supply requirements" and promises preferential trading terms to local vendors for private label goods. It claims 90% of its Homebrand products are from Australia.

Of the products we surveyed, just 55% of Coles products and 38% of Woolworths products were locally made or grown, compared with 92% of market leader groceries. We counted any product that was made in Australia or included Australian-grown ingredients, but these products may still contain other ingredients from overseas.

Interactive map

Click on the coloured pins to find out which products are made where. View CHOICE Country of Origin in a larger map, or download our table for even more detail.

Key

Coles
Woolworths
Market leader

Farmers feel the pinch

While Coles and Woolies claim their buyers only look to overseas markets when local suppliers are unable to meet demand, farmers tell a different story.

George Anderson* has been a vegetable farmer all his life. If you've ever purchased a basket of fresh veggies from Woolworths, chances are you've probably eaten produce from his Tasmanian farm. If you haven't, your chances are dropping. After more than 30 years of farming, Anderson said in 2012 that the situation was getting dire.

"The situation we're in now is probably the worst I've ever seen," he told CHOICE. "In the past, if you had a bad year, you could balance it out the next year. We can't say that now. There's far more [produce] in Australia than we can actually sell because of all the imports coming in."

On its website, Woolworths affirms its commitment to the future of rural Australia, but the origins of their processed fruit and vegetables – the kind you find in tins or in the freezer section – suggest otherwise. In the nine frozen vegetable categories we looked at, 13 of the 14 Woolworths private label products were sourced internationally. Similarly, 19 of their 21 tinned fruit and vegetable products came from overseas.

Although the frozen potato products from the market leaders we examined were made in Australia, the same can't be said for Woolworths-branded products. Frozen chips across both the Select and Homebrand tiers, as well as Woolies' potato wedges, are processed in the Netherlands, some 16,000km away.

Coles also sources some frozen and processed vegetables from overseas, but has recently come back to Australia for a range of frozen foods, including corn, broccoli and peas – a move Coles says has been well received by customers.

Not everyone is invited to the party however. Woolworths says its tender process for private label goods is by invitation only – something farmers believe is less than ideal. "We don't find out – it is not a public document," says Mitch Ball*, a Tasmanian farmer who supplies Woolworths with fresh produce year round.

"You can't expect the big two [supermarkets] to be benevolent organisations, but there are extremely significant farms in this country that aren't even being given the opportunity to bid for their contracts," says William Churchill, spokesperson for Ausveg, the Australian farming industry body. "I know some of the biggest bean growers in this country weren't even aware of [private label] contracts." (*names changed)

A well-travelled meal

As well as the economic impact, imported foods and ingredients have an environmental impact as they are shipped across the globe. The distance food travels between production and consumption is known as food miles – the further a product travels, the more fuel is required, so the greater its environmental impact.

Researchers at the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES) found that a typical Melbourne shopping basket has travelled a staggering 70,000 kilometres – almost two loops of the globe. By opting for an orange grown in Mildura rather than California, for example, you can reduce food miles from almost 13,000km to, well, however close you live to Mildura.

Take a packet of Kettle Chips for example. While the bag says "made in Australia", and the address is in Sydney, the ingredients come from all over:

  • The spuds are sourced from all along Australia's east coast.
  • The salt is from Price in South Australia.
  • The sunflower oil is extracted in Newcastle and refined in Sydney.
  • The same goes for its packaging, which comprises fused layers of plastic and aluminium, with coloured ink for labelling.
  • The plastic film is from Wodonga.
  • The inks are made in Melbourne using components from India, China, the US and Europe.
  • Aluminium from Italy is added in Sydney, but the aluminium itself has probably been smelted from Australian bauxite.
  • The chips are made in Shepparton – and then transported to your store.
  • There are other contributing factors too, so food miles should not be treated as the sole indicator of a product's overall environmental impact. foodmiles.com is a basic but useful tool that can roughly calculate how far your food has travelled.

Cutting back the food miles

Many arguments are put forward about reducing food miles, but popular opinion doesn't always match up with the facts. For example, you could reduce food miles by eating fresh food that's locally sourced, which is often promoted as being beneficial to your health as well. The argument is that food transported across the country or world isn't as fresh.

However, food miles are not a reliable gauge of either freshness or what is in season when food can be transported a long way, quickly. In winter, you can find strawberries grown in Australia, and apples are cold-stored for up to a year before they hit the shelves. Finding really fresh food is great for your health, but be aware that frozen vegies can have higher vitamin levels than their fresh equivalents that have been in distribution for a few days.

Similarly, reduced distance means fewer emissions from vehicles used to transport food. While this is true, a US study recently found that transportation accounts for only 11% of food's total greenhouse emissions, and what would be classed as food miles – the transport between the producer and retailer – is only four per cent of total greenhouse emissions.

Sometimes a locally produced product can have a larger carbon footprint than its imported equivalent. New Zealand researchers studying food miles argued that lamb produced and sold in the UK requires four times the energy input of lamb produced in New Zealand and transported to the UK.

Arguments against the food miles campaign remind shoppers that these miles don't tell the whole story. Farms and factories where our food is grown and processed have other environmental effects like impacts on wildlife, soil degradation and salinity, use of harmful pesticides, fertilisers that require a huge amount of energy to make, water and energy consumption, and wastage.

Finally, experts agree that for good nutrition we should eat a variety of foods, and reducing food miles can limit the diversity in our diets. If Sydneysiders were to stick to a 100-mile diet for example, they would have to go without wheat, while Melburnians couldn't access sugar.

The message is that while reducing food miles can certainly be beneficial, the answer isn't as black and white as simply buying food that's sourced from as close as possible.

Oxfam's GROW campaign recommends eating seasonally, buying locally and growing your own. They say: "The distance food travels is a poor measure of its total impact … What we need to do is understand how our food is produced, the working conditions in which it's produced, and how it's travelled to reach our plates, then we can make informed and ethical choices based on our own priorities."