by Michael O'Neill
April 15th, 2013

While consumers in the Asian region steadily increase their imports of Australian food and agriculture products, Aussies themselves are also favouring locally made goods. ‘Buy Australia’ campaigns are ubiquitous in Australia, with some state governments doing their bit to boost the flagging manufacturing sector by mandating departments to source Australian made products first.

But what does ‘Australian made’ mean in the context of food?

A recent survey found that most consumers don’t know. As curious as this might sound, it should not be a surprise that there is widespread confusion about just what constitutes an Australian made food. Current laws allow a product with only 50% of its cost (including packaging) to have come from Australia to be labelled ‘Australian Made’. This means that orange juice produced from imported fruit pulp, but mixed or packaged in Australia, has been marketed as local.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon recently used the iconic Aussie meat pie to highlight the issue. He said “the packaging can read ‘Made in Australia’ when in fact none of the meat within the meat pie comes from Australia.”  Similarly Aussie pork producers have long tried to educate Australians about the confusing rules that allow imported Danish pork made into bacon in Australia to be labeled ‘Australian Made’.

So it could not have been a surprise to many food regulation watchers that a recent Australian Senate Committee inquiry into country of origin labeling for food called for clearer regulation. Just what that means however requires ‘more work’ in order to become well-defined legislation that protects producers and consumers.

The Greens Party leader, Christine Milne, has pledged to do that. She has promised to modify her original (and rejected) bill on country of origin labeling to include the Committee’s recommendations. Australian consumer groups look set to support more transparent rules. But the Australian Food and Grocery Council – the principal lobby group for manufacturers and retailers – labelled the proposed Green’s Bill, ‘ludicrous’. There is a traditional wariness of the Greens by industry groups. At the last federal election the Greens campaigned with a lengthy list of food regulation proposals, many of which food manufacturers found extraordinary and unworkable.

Early indications are that Senator Xenophon and the National Party will also support some form of labelling legislation. It is at first glance an unusual alliance of liberal and conservative.

However, observers of the recent Asian investment debate in Australia might not be surprised, particularly when that investment is in agriculture. They will recall that the Nationals are considered the natural political party of growers and producers, keen to be seen to be protecting the ‘home-grown’ agriculture industry.

In this case protection means from cheap imports, but we have recently seen that protection extend to a wariness of foreign investment, particularly Chinese investment. Such opposition is based on a mix of national security concerns, old-fashioned protectionism and the emotional stronghold Australian agriculture still has in the current psyche.

Jacquelynne Willcox, is head of Public Affairs, Australia, at Weber Shandwick

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