In many product lines, consumers face an uphill battle trying to find Australian-grown food.
Country of origin labels are notorious for using “weasel words”, a term used by Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to describe ambiguous and unhelpful descriptions such as “Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients”.
Under current Food Standards regulations, packaged food must carry a statement identifying either where it was grown or made. But this is where the confusion sets in.
“Made in Australia” means the product has to be “substantially transformed” in Australia and at least 50 per cent of the production costs incurred here. It doesn’t mean the fruit or vegetable was grown in Australia.
“Product of Australia” means that each significant ingredient originated in Australia.
Fairfax looked at a typical supermarket range of tinned fruit salad and found that all were labelled “Made in Australia”. One sported the famous kangaroo logo on the front. In all cases, brands confirmed that pineapple in the fruit salad was imported from Thailand.
Among shoppers surveyed, there was confusion over the meaning of “Made in” and “Product of”, and some wrongly believed that “Made in” was more conclusive about the food’s origin.
One shopper said labels in Australia were more complicated and confusing than those in Europe.
“It’s very hidden … it’s a bit annoying,” she said.
Another cause for furrowed brows among shoppers is the variation in country of origin labelling within the same brand’s product range, depending on how the food is presented or packaged.
Golden Circle crushed pineapple is “Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients”, but pineapple pieces are “Product of Australia” and tropical pieces are “Product of Indonesia”.
Coles tinned peaches are a “Product of Australia”, but pick up a seemingly identical four-pack of plastic tub peaches and you’ll find they are “Made in China”.
Woolworths Select tinned peaches are “Made in Australia”, but its four-pack tubs are “Made in Swaziland from imported and local ingredients”.
Woolworths failed to disclose the origin of many of its products, while Simplot, which owns Edgell and Birds Eye, and Heinz, which owns Golden Circle, did not respond to questions.
If it is unhelpful for consumers, it is also causing headaches for manufacturers. SPC Ardmona supports the possible introduction of graphics that proportionally represent how much of a product comes from Australia.
At the moment, its tinned peaches cannot claim to be a “Product of Australia” despite the peaches being Australian-grown. The citric acid preservative in the syrup is imported, so it can only claim “Made in Australia”.
Similarly, Coles brand tinned beetroot uses food acid from Malaysia so it cannot claim its home-grown beetroot is a domestic product.
For many products, sourcing Australian produce is unprofitable and imported options are much cheaper.
Fairfax was unable to find any Australian-grown asparagus in the tinned vegetable aisle. Joe Vizzarri is one of Australia’s largest asparagus growers and supplies much of the fresh asparagus seen in supermarkets. But manufacturing tinned asparagus would cost him twice as much as products from China or Peru.
“We’re just not competitive, that’s the big thing,” Mr Vizzarri said. “The cost of actually putting it together in Australia ends up nearly double what the Chinese product is.”
Most customers focus mainly on price, which means they get an inferior quality product, he said.
“Cheap food, as we’ve seen with the berry outbreak, leaves a lot to be desired, let’s put it that way. But at the end of the day, consumers want cheap food,” Mr Vizzarri said.
Fairfax was unable to find any Australian-grown frozen berries, with most coming from Chile and others from Peru, Canada, the United States, Turkey and Serbia. One frozen raspberries product was a product of China, the country linked to the Hepatitis A outbreak.
As long as customers continue to choose the cheapest products, foreign sourced food will remain a fixture on supermarket shelves.
“If the Australian consumer didn’t want to buy the cheap food they can leave it on the shelf, but they don’t,” Mr Vizzarri said.