Cool to know a food item's country of origin

Last updated 13:46 08/08/2013

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When you're shopping for food, what do you want to know? How much it costs, of course. But you also want to be assured it is safe to eat and that no animals were harmed in the making of it - putting aside the undeniable fact that if it is meat a violent death was involved.

OPINION: Do you also want to know more about its origins? As part of your food safety concerns would you like to know if it is locally made or imported? I'm sure you would prefer to support a local industry rather than one in another country.

If so, then I assume you would want Cool stuff.

Country of origin labelling (Cool) has been promoted by several local industries and the Greens for some time, but has always been blocked by the Government.

The argument is a trade one. The World Trade Organisation has ruled that the requirement to have such labelling on products is a barrier to free trade.

But despite this, most of the countries we trade with have it. They're Cool.

So you get the farcical example of irradiated tomatoes from Australia. In a few weeks they will be here, flying in from Queensland.

Most will go into the food service and hospitality industries, but if some end up in supermarkets the labels will say they are irradiated - a process designed to kill pests. This is because Food Standards Australia New Zealand says they have to have the label. But supermarkets don't have to say they are from Australia.

What difference does this make to your health? Nothing, the food standards authority says. Irradiation is safe. But it wants you to be fully informed.

So, why can't we know where the tomatoes are from?

Australia is Cool. Its rules say our unpackaged food imports have to be labelled from New Zealand.

As a small nation dependent on trade, we abide by WTO rulings. It stands us in good stead when we bring a case against another country.

But are we being too sensitive?

Some firms are determinedly unCool. These are the importers of cheap fruit and vegetable concentrates who in processing mix them with local product, or sell them whole. It's a fair bet they would be wary full disclosure could affect sales.

Some own up, but fudge the labelling - like the importer who showed a photo of fat Kiwi asparagus spears on the label of a tin of weedy Chinese stuff. The origins were admitted on the back in small print.

Cool is a hot topic for fruit and vegetable growers who have to compete with cheaper imported produce in supermarkets. You, the shopper, might prefer to buy on price, but you should have all the facts before you make that choice.

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Pig farmers also want to be Cool. They want you to know the cheap bacon in that supermarket chiller is from a country that allows sows to be confined in the stalls that are being phased out in New Zealand.

But imported pig meat is the backbone of a thriving business in sausages and other specialty foods and these companies don't want to be Cool.

A small glimmer of hope for the Coolsters has emerged in the past week.

An agreement among supermarkets and butchers to voluntarily label imported beef and lamb has come into effect.

This has raised eyebrows among the Government's trade myrmidons, I'm told, and the farmer body Beef + Lamb NZ has felt it necessary to state that it is against mandatory labelling.

But this is only a minor victory for the Cool crowd.

The only imported beef and lamb comes from Australia. It's not a problem, healthwise or tastewise. The sheep and beef breeds are similar to ours and most of us have been there, eaten the local product and been no worse for the experience.

The imports are only 5 per cent of all beef and lamb sold in supermarkets and butchers and are brought in at times of shortage. We've probably eaten it already, though unwittingly.

Another chance to eat it will arrive over the next three to four months. Labelled Aussie beef will appear in the shops and it will be interesting to see what the response is.

I suppose it will depend on the price. Surveys show 70 per cent to 80 per cent of us prefer to buy local, but price rules. That is the test. Do you feel Cool?

- The Dominion Post


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