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Country of origin food labelling bill 'gutted' by select committee, author says

Monday 16th July 2018

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The architect of a bill designed to impose mandatory country of origin labelling on food says he's disappointed with how the bill has been "gutted" by the select committee considering it.

Former Green MP Steffan Browning had his Consumers' Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill drawn from the members' ballot in December 2016, but retired last year after two terms in Parliament. The Green Party campaigned on the issue for years, with former MP Sue Kedgley presenting a petition calling for mandatory country-of-origin labelling signed by 39,000 people in 2007, and the party promising ahead of last year's election they would develop mandatory standards for free range and country of origin labelling if they were in government.

The bill passed its first reading in April 2017 and attracted 298 submissions to the Primary Production select committee. Following the election, the committee members have changed, and last week issued an interim report recommending a narrower ambit. The committee has asked for further public feedback by Aug. 1.

"They've gutted it out to such a degree it's limited as to how much it will help consumers," Browning told BusinessDesk. "It was pretty clear from reading a lot of submissions that there is a huge public appetite for this kind of labelling and obviously this bill is really, really different."

In its original form, the bill sought "to provide a simple, mandatory labelling system in New Zealand that provides consumers with accurate information about the country of origin of single component foods to enable them to make informed food purchasing decisions". That would cover fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, bulk flour, grains, nuts, seeds, and oils, to which preservatives, colours or flavours such as water, sugar or salt could be added.

The select committee proposes that changes be made to the Fair Trading Act to regulate disclosure of the country of origin for certain foods instead of a separate bill, and limits the application to "minimally processed" fresh or frozen fruit, vegetables, meat, fish or seafood, of one type only. That means it wouldn't apply to canned fruit or vegetables, mixed frozen vegetables, crumbed fish, marinated or cured meats such as bacon, dried fruit, or nuts, seeds or grains. 

Supermarkets and online food sellers would be required to disclose the place where food was grown, but restaurants and wholesalers would be exempted. The country of origin is defined as the place the food was grown - harvested, caught or raised - not where it was packaged, manufactured or processed.

Regulations on the definition of "minimally processed" and how food sellers are required to disclose the country of origin will be made after the bill is passed. Those would be made within 18 months of the bill passing, with another six months before labelling is mandatory for fresh food and another two years before frozen food labelling is required. 

Browning said he was very disappointed with the removal of nuts, seeds, grains and oils from the labelling requirements. He said he was pleased that meat generally was included under the bill, though queried why cured meats such as bacon or ham would be excluded.

"We have 60 percent, probably plus by now, of the pork consumed in New Zealand is imported, and they're effectively single-ingredient apart from salts and sugars - it's not as though it is a pork sausage when there's maybe another four or five ingredients. So there needs to be some significant changes."

Browning said there should also be mandatory labelling about where foods were processed, as some consumers would have concerns about food safety standards or labour laws in other countries.

"You can imagine fish caught in New Zealand waters and processed in China or Indonesia, I think consumers would want to know that. It might be hard to get through in this bare-bones bill but it is something that would need to be looked at."

National MP David Bennett, who chairs the committee and is a former Food Safety Minister, said the bill is "pretty much in its settled state now" and the second consultation is to check there are no major issues. As a member's bill, rather than a government bill, it hadn't had government departments investigate issues around country of origin labelling, he said.

"We basically had three options in front of the committee, and the committee has chosen to go with the least prescriptive of the options, just a single food group," Bennett said. "If you’re going to go down those options which have a larger ambit, you really need to be able to investigate a bit more some of the issues that would arise, and we didn’t have that support."

"There will be some people that will wish it had covered more, but with the limited ability of that committee to do that it’s probably about as far as we could go through a members’ bill."

Green MP Gareth Hughes has taken over the bill now Browning has left. However, the Greens don't have a permanent position on the primary production select committee - there are three Labour Party MPs, four National Party MPs and one from New Zealand First - so Hughes doesn't get a vote in select committee, though he has been attending its meetings.

Hughes said he welcomed the amendments the committee had made and wanted the bill to be workable.

"The wider you make it in scope, the more complex it is, so this is where the select committee has got to and they’ll be asking people through a second round of submissions what they think about it," Hughes said. "Bacon is probably the most critical issue given the importance to New Zealand producers, and low animal welfare-quality bacon products being imported.

"I’d be urging people to have their say, particularly on those critical issues of nuts, grains, oils, and bacon."


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