The Australian Food and Grocery Council, which represents food and grocery products manufacturers has today (Tuesday) attacked calls for country of origin labelling saying populist protectionism is not the answer.

The AFGC called on all those involved in the debate on country-of-origin labelling to tackle the real issues affecting Australian farmers rather than take a populist protectionist stance that will make food companies in Australia less competitive and force more job losses in rural and regional areas.

“Country-of-origin labelling is not a simple problem with a simple solution”, said the chief executive of the AFGC, Dick Wells. “We need to stay focused on identifying and tackling the real causes of why Australian farmers are losing market to overseas competitors rather than shooting at shadows, otherwise we risk more food plant closures around Australia.”

“Those of us in the processed food industry understand the difficulties farmers face and sympathise with them; however, they are not alone in this. Australian food companies operate in a global market and they too are having to fight off aggressive competition from around the world to supply supermarkets in Australia,” he said.”

Millions of Australians every day buy supermarket products based on value. They overwhelmingly look for quality at the right price, not the country of origin of ingredients, the AFGC said.

The food industry supports the identification of the country of origin of fresh produce and primary single-source processed foods (eg frozen peas or canned peaches), so as to provide shoppers with more information. However, a system that requires the identification of the source of all of the ingredients in processed foods is unworkable and will impose prohibitive costs on the food industry in Australia and will lead to companies becoming less competitive and having to shed jobs.

“Simple logic and major practicalities have been lost in the emotion involved in this debate,” Wells said. “A company producing a food that contains, say, 20 ingredients may source from a pool of more than 50 local and international suppliers, who in turn source from various countries from around the world. The source of supply can change regularly due to a range of factors, including availability, seasonality, quality and price.”

“The cost implications and productivity losses involved make it impossible for food companies to produce new labels for each production run,” he said. “And it is for this simple reason that labels currently say ‘made from local and imported ingredients’.”

Any changes to the current country-of-origin labelling system need to be simple, practical and cost-effective, while still providing the consumer with important information, but they should not be used as a trade barrier.

Australia is a net exporter of raw and processed food, and it cannot expect to erect protectionist barriers without having its own products locked out of important markets. Mr Wells said that farmers and the food industry needed to work together to find ways to ensure their industries remain competitive and have a future. “At the end of the day, however, all power is in the hands of consumers”, he said. “If Australians want to ensure that farmers and food manufacturers have a future in this country, they need to consider the buying decisions they make every day.”