WASHINGTON, March 4, 2015 – An outbreak of hepatitis A in Australia stemming from imported berries has infected at least 18, leading the government to push for changes to its confusing food labeling laws. If Prime Minister Tony Abbott follows through with his announced intentions, those changes may include mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL).
The hepatitis outbreak is blamed on berries sold by Patties Foods, an Australian company that was using Chinese berries in its Nanna’s frozen Mixed Berries and six other products. While the company says there are no confirmed tests linking its products to the outbreak, it has issued a recall and says it is “working proactively with health authorities based on the information they have presented to date.”
In response to the outbreak, Abbott has instructed his administration to prepare country-of-origin labeling legislation to be presented to his Cabinet by the end of March. Many in Australia have been critical of the country’s food labeling laws including the consumer advocacy group CHOICE. On its website, CHOICE calls the current voluntary COOL “full of confusing terminology and loopholes” and says an “absence of clarity” has consumers “relying on voluntary certification schemes and logos.”
In a release, Australia Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce said improving the country’s labeling requirements is “important reform that was long overdue, had been talked about for too long, and was now going to become a reality."
Questions remain about the content of Australia’s COOL rule, but early reports indicate it could be even more restrictive than the U.S. rule which requires, among other things, that meat be labeled with where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. A panel of the World Trade Organization has agreed with Canada and Mexico that the provision is protectionist and the U.S. is appealing that decision. A ruling is expected in mid-April.
Australia’s rule will likely be mandatory and could cover a wider variety of products than the U.S. rule, which also covers fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables, but the language of the rule has not been released. Some are hoping that it will clear up confusion over “product of” and “made in” terminology. Current law states that that a food item can be deemed “made in Australia” if at least 51 percent of production costs were incurred in Australia, no matter where the ingredients originated.
As the Australian government moves for COOL language of its own, the country remains signed on as a third party to the challenge to the U.S. rule before the WTO. Chandler Goule, senior vice president of programs with the National Farmers Union, said Australia was “heading down the exact same path” as the U.S. when it decided to implement COOL and said consumers want to know more information about their food, no matter where they live.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Goule said Australia should withdraw support for a challenge to the U.S. COOL rule if it is working up legislation of its own.
“I’d highly encourage Australia to remove its name from the WTO dispute, if that’s even a possibility, when they’re sitting here trying to implement a law very similar to what the United States has already done based on consumer demand,” Goule said. “(Consumers) want to know this information, and the WTO really needs to get out of the way.”
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Goule said. “Consumers are going to start asking for more and more information (about their food). Country-of-origin labeling is just the very beginning.”
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