A number of breaches of country of origin labelling laws have taken place in Australia, leading to the demand for stronger enforcement and harsher penalties.
Country of origin labelling laws were introduced to ensure consumers knew the origin of their food, however, some produce retailers have ignored these laws due to what many say are inadequate enforcement standards. This has resulted in calls for the government to place greater value on consumers' right to choose by implementing stronger enforcement and harsher penalties for improper labelling.
Calls for Tougher Enforcement
In Victoria, authorities seem to be turning a blind eye to country of origin labelling breaches. Despite the growing number of incidences, not a single Victorian business has been fined for breaking these laws, a fact that has disappointed Victoria’s Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh.
Mr Walsh stated, “Some shops and markets are not taking their legal obligations seriously and consumers, and our growers, have every right to be annoyed”.
AUSVEG Spokesperson Michael Bodnarcuk also commented, “AUSVEG is concerned by the flagrant disregard by some fresh food retailers in Victoria with relation to the implementation of country of origin labelling laws. These laws were introduced to protect consumers and their ability to decide on the origin of the product that they will consume.”
Bodnarcuk went on to state, “Studies have shown that the majority of Australians would prefer to buy locally grown fruit and vegetables and we believe that consumers are being robbed of this ability through improper labelling practices.”
To date, more than 50 labelling breaches have been discovered across Victoria by 14 different retail outlets. During inspections, officials discovered that fruit and vegetables from China, Mexico, New Zealand, and the U.S. were being sold without proper labelling. Many of these were also being also being labelled as "Australian grown", although none of these breaches were reported to the Department of Health.
Produce retail giants, such as Coles, have also committed repeated breaches of country of origin labelling laws, despite facing numerous penalties for their actions. Although Coles has been fined several times, the fines are small enough that the practice of mislabelling seems to be a small price to pay to boost profit margins.
Food Safety Concerns
Businesses are well aware that consumers have a tendency toward eating locally produced food and they are misleading Australian consumers by offering them more affordable foreign produce falsely labelled as local. As a result, consumers cannot be sure where the food they are consuming has originated.
Food safety concerns related to unknowingly consuming produce from abroad have also arisen. If consumers contract a foreign foodborne illness from produce they believe to be local, it will be difficult to seek proper treatment, presenting potential health risks.
The lack of consequences associated with repeated labelling breaches will only trigger growth in the number of cases and mislabelling foreign produce could very well become the norm if labelling law enforcement doesn't tighten up.