CoOL on top

At the end of September this year a NZ parliamentary committee decided against supporting a call for mandatory country of origin labelling on food products.

The committee called for voluntary measures, but said mandatory labelling would impact on trade and restrict consumer choice. The decision was also based on the argument that labelling would tell consumers which country the food was from, but would not be able to guarantee that it was safe for consumption.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority, representing some of the country’s primary food producers, did not support mandatory labelling, believing it would restrict NZ exporters’ access to international markets.

For the Green Party, on the other hand, the consumers’ right to make an informative choice is essential. “The recent infant formula food safety scandal in China has further undermined consumers’ confidence in the quality control and food safety systems in place in China, and concerns about the safety of some imported food,” said the party in a statement.

Despite these arguments, NZ, which has favoured a voluntary system of country of origin labelling (CoOL) for many years, did not change its position.

With mandatory CoOL resulting in additional costs to consumers and industry; the lack of flexibility for destination markets if labelling is not properly mandated; and the high prospect of NZ processed foods including ingredients from other countries, the anti-CoOL stand has remained.

According to NZFSA food should be safe before it enters the marketplace, and current pre-market clearance processes are the best assurances that foods pose no threats to human health.

We’re jamming

A strong supporting argument for the use of CoOL, according to some producers, is that it can be used as an effective marketing tool.

In light of this, the first major NZ jam brand to adopt CoOL has been Anathoth, with labels on the containers of jam set to show the country of origin specifically for fruit ingredients. Until now Anathoth has followed food industry conventions by stating that its jams were ‘made in NZ from local and imported ingredients’.

Responding to customer requests for information on their ingredient suppliers, Anathoth’s got a country of origin labelling project underway in February.

“Essentially, instead of just saying ‘boysenberry, sugar’, it now says ‘NZ boysenberry, sugar’,” explained Barker Fruit Processors managing director, Michael Barker. “We’re not making a big fuss about it, we’re just being honest with consumers and telling them where their food comes from.”

Barker’s, located in Geraldine, is the new owner and producer of the Anathos brand, sold throughout NZ, and now available in Australia.

Although Australia has taken one position internationally – opposing CoOL for the same reasons as NZ – it has retained CoOL domestically for many years.

According to Michael, “as a small trading nation, NZ is very concerned about its position as an exporter. In reality, however, it would make an awful lot of sense for NZ to align itself with Australia. When you’re a trans-Tasman manufacturer, such as us, and you’re marketing in both countries, you have to comply with both sets of regulations.

“We had made sure that we complied with the Australian regulations regardless of the NZFSA decision. I think there’s a lot of argument for why NZ should actually change some of its legislation, just to make it easier for NZ companies who basically have to adopt these Australian regulations, even though it’s not technically necessary.

“On the other hand, if they don’t aspire to export to Australia, and a lot of NZ manufacturers don’t, then of course they don’t have to think about CoOL, and they won’t have to for a while yet.

“Even when the fruit in the Anathoth jam is 100% NZ grown, the sugar is still imported, so our labels used to say ‘made from local and imported ingredients’. That wording on the label, however, wasn’t giving our customers the information they wanted,” he said.

As a processed food manufacturer, Anathoth has decided to declare the country of origin only for the major characterising ingredients of its products. “I don’t think anyone is terribly worried at this stage about where the sugar comes from, or where all the specialty ingredients come from that might be in the food,” explained Michael.

“It’s only when it comes to single ingredient foods and fresh produce that people are really concerned about country of origin. Those are the ingredients that are in the firing line, and that’s what people are particularly interested in.

“If you’re going to buy a bag of frozen peas, you wouldn’t mind knowing whether they came from China, NZ or Australia, but if you’re buying a curry meal with ten vegetables, meats and sauces all on the one plate, then the ingredients are getting a bit complicated.

“As an example, with our chutneys, at this stage, we’re not worrying about the CoOL – the ingredients in those are generally much more uncharacterised, as opposed to the ingredients in jam which actually have quite a strong presence.

“On the other hand, when it comes to our jams, because the products’ ‘transparency’ really resonate with consumers, we felt they had a specific interest in knowing exactly where those fruits came from. However, the more processed that a food becomes, realistically speaking, the less interested consumers are. Also the more complicated, logistically, it becomes to put country of origin declarations on those products – even for the significant characterising ingredients.

“With manufacturers being likely to frequently change suppliers to combat circumstances beyond their control, detailed CoOL “becomes a nightmare,” said Michael.

“If the ingredients meet quality specifications, and your quality assurance manager is happy, then it shouldn’t matter where they come from.”

As Michael sees it, “if you start saying that your supplies have to come from specific locations, regardless of everything else, to meet your labelling specifications, then obviously the prices will skyrocket, and suppliers won’t have to remain competitive with manufacturers becoming locked in.”

Anathoth has a policy of using local fruit wherever possible, with seven of the nine currently available Anathoth jams containing 100% NZ fruit. These include strawberry, boysenberry, apricot, plum, blackberry, blackcurrant, blueberry, grapefruit, lemon and as many raspberries as Anathoth can get.

“Consumers expect Anathoth to be a home-made style jam made from local fruit. Due to supply issues, however, we cannot always deliver 100% on that expectation. For instance, the virtual collapse of the NZ raspberry industry has led to only half our raspberries coming from Nelson with the balance being imported from Canada and Chile. In addition, Anathoth orange marmalade is made from the renowned Seville oranges grown in Spain.”

The full changeover to the new labels across the Anathoth jam range will take about four months. “Achieving country of origin labelling is an added cost to production, so we’ll be closely monitoring consumer response to see whether it’s appropriate to extend the labelling initiative to our other products.

“At the end of the day, the cheap products do sell, and consumers will essentially still go for those, regardless of whether those ingredients come from China or not. What we’re doing is allowing those that want it, to make an informed choice,” concluded Michael.

Maya Gorelik is a freelance writer for FOOD Magazine.

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