Katherine Rich: Country of Origin Labelling

Walk into any major supermarket and the first thing you see are bins filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. And they all have stickers or cards on them denoting their country of origin – grapes from California, pineapples from Queensland, Kiwifruit from Te Puke, bananas from the Philippines … you name it.

I suspect most of us agree that shoppers are keen to know where their fresh produce comes from, especially when they know they’re out of season in New Zealand.  

Labels providing information that makes the origin clear in an instant is both reassuring and efficient for shoppers, and supermarkets have gone to a great deal of effort over the years with this.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe they get the credit they deserve from some critics for this work. In fact, some groups campaigning for legislated country of origin labelling will often create the impression that consumers are left in the dark which is misleading and certainly not the case.

But while the country of origin information works perfectly well in the produce section, I’m afraid we can’t say the same for some of the other products inadvertently captured by the Greens’ latest private member bill, by MP Stefan Browning.

The Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill, which is currently being studied by Parliament, was originally designed to provide information about where fresh fruit and vegetables came from, and most people were happy with that. Until it was changed.

It has now been expanded to cover every single-component food sold in New Zealand stores.  And that has made it either impossible or cost-prohibitive to implement for a number of processed foods.

The bill proposes major problems for popular and basic parts of the family food budget, such as coffee (instant and capsules), tea, sugar, flour, custard powder, pepper, cooking oils, oats, spices, among others. It could also affect many breakfast cereals.

Many of the products that will now be affected are those we don’t produce in New Zealand at all, such as rice and coffee beans.

Coffee is an important example because it’s a big part of our lives (along with tea).

Under the bill, coffee is a single-component product. Beans are sourced on a global market, depending on weather, price and availability, and blended to create the expected taste. 

Though the product is consistent, the beans could come from a range of regularly changing sources. Coffee is the second most-traded food commodity and the beans could come from any of 70 countries. New Zealand coffee companies tend to source from the 10 major producers, including countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil and Ethiopia. Events such as weather, disease, war, and political turmoil can affect availability or price of beans.

Because of the way coffee is processed, a packet of Nescafé Classic, Moccona or Gregg’s could contain beans from many countries blended to deliver the consistent taste consumers expect. 

Keeping up with an ever-changing global supply and labelling for every batch of coffee would be a huge, if not impossible, challenge for suppliers.

Maintaining segregation on a massive scale, or regularly re-labelling the origin of blends, would be a task where the costs would outweigh what shoppers want. 

If the bill makes it into law and still includes the categories I’ve mentioned, there would be major additional supply chain costs. And that’s only if companies wished to re-label for New Zealand, a market so small that the value of doing so would be marginal.

Though it seems most voters are in favour of country of origin labelling for fresh fruit and vegetables, they may not be so keen if it raises the cost of tea, coffee, pepper, flour, and breakfast cereals.

As such, the NZ Food and Grocery Council will not be supporting the bill in its present form.

Without major carve-outs for some of the categories and other clarifications, we believe it should not become law.

(As published in Supermarket News, June 2017)