Where's your food from?

It’s not always easy to tell where your frozen fruit and vege comes from.

Broccoli from China, berries from Chile, brussels sprouts from the Netherlands. Last year, New Zealand imported more than $38 million worth of frozen fruit and vegetables but our survey found it’s not always easy to tell where these products come from.

Frozen fruit and veges are a great standby in the freezer, perfect for throwing into a casserole or adding to your breakfast smoothie. But you shouldn’t assume that frozen goodness has been picked and packed in New Zealand.

We checked out country of origin statements of frozen berries and veges in the supermarket freezer. We found spinach and broccoli from China, mashed potato made in Belgium and strawberries from Peru. However, of the 81 packets we looked at, 17 had vague statements the product was made or packed in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients or packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients. This meant it was impossible to tell from the label where the food came from.

What we found

Talley’s is the only company in our survey that uses 100 percent New Zealand produce. According to Bob Darragh, Talley’s national sales manager, it’s the company’s point of difference. “We’ve only ever run out of spinach so we didn’t sell that product for a while. And to get around availability issues we vary what’s in our frozen vegetable mix depending on what’s in season,” Mr Darragh said.

Most of the berry companies in our survey are upfront about where their berries come from. At the time of our survey, berries were out of season but most companies had printed the origin statements on the pack. Sujon and Oob Organic list the multiple countries of origin in their mixed berries.

When it comes to frozen veges, companies don’t have a consistent approach to labelling. McCain says on the packaging its broccoli comes from China and brussels sprouts from the Netherlands. But its frozen capsicums, cubed pumpkin and sliced mushrooms are “packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients”, so could come from anywhere. A spokesperson for McCain told us it sources the majority of vegetables from New Zealand, and smaller quantities from South Africa, China, Europe and North America.

Wattie’s tells you where its New Zealand-grown veges come from (even down to the region). However, Wattie’s free-flow spinach and some vegetable mixes have vague statements about their origin. Mike Pretty, managing director for Heinz Wattie’s, told us more than 80 percent of vegetables used in its frozen vegetable products were grown in New Zealand. But for a variety of reasons, including product availability, it sources some ingredients from Belgium, China, Ecuador, Guatemala, Spain, Thailand and the USA.

It’s a similar story for supermarket house brands. Some products state their country of origin, while others state “made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients”. A Countdown spokesperson told us this statement on its products meant more than 50 percent of the ingredients came from local sources (if “imported” was first in the statement, then more than 50 percent of the ingredients would be imported). Foodstuffs said it used the statement on multi-ingredient products that contain New Zealand and imported produce.

What does the law say?

Under the Fair Trading Act, any claims about a product’s origin must not be misleading or deceptive. If a product claims to be “Product of New Zealand”, the essential character of the food must be created in New Zealand. “Made in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients” gives no guarantees about the product’s origin.

Packaged food must have contact details for distributors or manufacturers but, with the exception of wine, country of origin labelling is voluntary. In 2005, the government opted out of joining Australia in mandating country of origin labelling under the Food Standards Code on the grounds it would be an impediment to trade.

Why don’t we have it?

The government and some big export players in the dairy and meat industry, such as Beef & Lamb NZ, are against compulsory country of origin labelling. These groups believe a voluntary system, backed by the Fair Trading Act, is a better option. These are their main arguments.

It’s not a health and safety issue

According to the Ministry for Primary Industries, knowing the country of origin doesn’t convey whether a food is safe or suitable. This is established by food safety measures such as pre-clearance arrangements with countries from which we import and monitoring compliance with food safety laws. In addition, imported high-risk foods (such as some cheeses and seafood) are checked at the border.

But border controls aren’t fool-proof. The venomous spiders recently found in imported Mexican grapes is a case in point.

Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food is from so they can make informed choices about what they buy. A 2013 study by Massey University published in the Journal of Market & Social Research concluded consumers’ desire to know the origin of fresh produce was high and their support for mandatory origin labelling was strong.

Study co-author Dr Judith Holdershaw, senior lecturer in marketing at Massey University, told us there was a clear country of origin effect when the origin was available to respondents.

“Eighty-seven percent of respondents in our study wanted mandatory labelling for all fresh fruit, meat and vegetables. And when asked how often they looked for this information more than half said often or always,” Dr Holdershaw said.

Product safety isn’t the only issue – supporting local producers and the local economy, reducing the food miles on the food they eat, and avoiding certain countries for ethical reasons such as workers’ rights also influence consumers’ purchasing decisions.

Cost

A cost-benefit analysis undertaken in 2005 by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research for Food Standards Australia New Zealand concluded the cost of country of origin labelling exceeded the benefits to consumers. The report estimated the likely costs (with mid-range assumptions) would be $60 million. Some manufacturers claim they’ll need systems for tracking where ingredients come from and will also have to change labels. Industry says these costs will be passed on to consumers.

But manufacturers already have systems in place for tracking where their food products come from – or they should have. A McCain spokesperson said the company has a certificate of analysis for each delivery of vegetables. Countdown has a quality assurance programme to ensure its house brand products are fully traceable. At Wattie’s, the same checks are applied to imported and local ingredients.

Manufacturers often change packaging for marketing promotions. The practice of laser-printing the country of origin on the label that some berry companies use is an example of how the information can be provided without the cost of a complete packaging change.

It may affect our trade

Some meat and dairy industry groups say we need as much flexibility as we can for marketing our food. Ashley Gray, marketing manager for Beef & Lamb NZ, told us mandatory country of origin labelling could be used as a trade barrier. It recognises country of origin labelling is becoming more important to New Zealanders and is committed to voluntary labelling. But it argues the voluntary uptake of labelling demonstrates the lack of a need to make it mandatory.

Horticulture New Zealand and New Zealand Pork disagree. They are part of a campaign to make labelling mandatory. Horticulture New Zealand communications manager Leigh Catley said most of our major trading partners, such as Australia, China, the UK and the US, require some country-of-origin labelling.

“It’s hard to argue that this will affect our relationship with these countries and at the very least we should match Australia’s policy,” Ms Catley said.

What the packets say

PRODUCTS COUNTRY OF ORIGIN (COO) STATEMENT
Fruit
18 Degrees South Four Berry Mix Product of Chile (COO varies depending on availability)
Fruzio Mixed Berries Product of China
Fruzio Strawberries Product of China
Oob Organic Mixed Berries Country of origin strawberries Turkey, blueberries Netherlands, raspberries Chile. (COO varies depending on availability)
Orchard Gold Mixed Berries Product of Chile (COO varies depending on availability)
Pams Boysenberries Packed in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients
Pams Raspberries Packed in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients
Signature Range Blackberries Country of origin New Zealand (COO varies depending on availability)
Signature Range Nature's Mixed Berries Country of origin Chile (COO varies depending on availability)
Sujon Mixed Berries Raspberries from Chile, boysenberries from New Zealand, blueberries from
New Zealand, blackberries from New Zealand, strawberries from Peru. (COO varies depending on availability)
Vegetables
Budget Frozen Mixed Veges Product of New Zealand
Homebrand Frozen Cross Cut Green Beans. Product of New Zealand
Homebrand Frozen Cut Green Beans Product of China
Homebrand Frozen Mixed Vegetables Product of New Zealand
Homebrand Minted Peas Made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients.
Homebrand Peas Product of New Zealand
Mama San Shelled Edamame Soybeans Made in China
McCain Baby Mint Peas Product of New Zealand
McCain Baby Peas Product of New Zealand
McCain Broccoli Product of China
McCain Brussels Sprouts Product of Netherlands
McCain Capsicums Packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients.
McCain Carrot, Cauliflower, Broccoli and Beans Product of China
McCain Cubed Pumpkin Packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients.
McCain Cut Beans Product of New Zealand
McCain Mixed Vegetables Peas, Corn & Carrots Product of New Zealand
McCain Peas Product of New Zealand
McCain Sliced Mushrooms Packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients.
McCain Stir Fry Supreme Vegetables Made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients.
McCain Super Juicy Corn Kernels Product of New Zealand
McCain Winter Vegetables Made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients.
Pams Chunky Veges Made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients
Pams Free-flow Spinach Product of China
Pams Garden Peas Product of New Zealand
Pams Mixed Veges Product of New Zealand
Pams Original Mashed Potato Made in Belgium
Pams Sliced Green Beans Product of New Zealand
Pams Sweet Corn Cobs Product of New Zealand
Pams Whole Corn Kernels Product of New Zealand
Pams Whole Green Beans Product of New Zealand
Select Baby Peas Product of New Zealand
Select Broad Beans Product of New Zealand
Select Cauiflower & Broccoli Florets Product of China
Select Cauliflower & Broccoli Mix Product of China
Select Chunky Mixed Vegetables Product of China
Select Garden Stir Fry Made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients.
Select Minted Baby Peas Product of New Zealand
Select Mixed Vegetables Peas, Carrots & Corn Product of New Zealand
Select Mixed Vegetables Winter Mix Product of China
Select Peas & Corn Mix Product of New Zealand
Select Sliced Butter Beans Product of New Zealand
Select Sliced Green Beans Product of New Zealand
Select Whole Green Beans Product of New Zealand
Shore Mariner Whole Broccoli Florets Product of China
Shore Mariner Whole Leaf Spinach Product of China
Signature Range Mixed Vegetables Packed in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients
Signature Range Supersweet Corn Kernels Product of New Zealand
Signature Range Whole Baby Carrots Packed in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients.
Talley's Corn Cobs 100% New Zealand Grown
Talley's Mixed Vegetables 100% New Zealand Grown
Talley's Garden Peas 100% New Zealand Grown
Talley's Spinach Portions 100% New Zealand Grown
Talley's Stir Fry Vegetables Winter Mix 100% New Zealand Grown
Talley's Whole Baby Carrots 100% New Zealand Grown
Wattie's Baby Carrots NZ Grown Carrots (Canterbury)
Wattie's Baby Peas NZ Grown Peas (Canterbury)
Wattie's Baby Peas & Supersweet Corn Product of New Zealand
Wattie's Broad Beans NZ Grown Beans (Canterbury)
Wattie's Broccoli and Cauliflower Medley Packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients.
Wattie's Choice Cut Green Beans NZ Grown Beans (Canterbury)
Wattie's Corn Kernels NZ Grown Corn (Gisborne)
Wattie's Free-flow Spinach Packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients.
Wattie's Garden Peas NZ Grown Peas (Canterbury)
Wattie's Mixed Veges Product of New Zealand
Wattie's Mixed Vegetables Rainbow Made in NZ from imported and local ingredients.
Wattie's Peas & Corn Product of New Zealand
Wattie's Sliced Green Beans NZ Grown Beans (Canterbury)
Wattie's Steam Fresh Vege Mix (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower) Made in NZ from imported and local ingredients.
Wattie's Super Sweet Corn Cobs Packed in NZ from imported ingredients.
Wattie's Super Sweet Corn Kernels Product of NZ
Wattie's Whole Baby Green Beans NZ Grown Beans (Canterbury)

We say

  • If the label doesn’t tell you where a product is from, ask the manufacturer. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, buy another product that gives you more information.
  • Know the difference between “Made in New Zealand” and “Product of New Zealand”. Product of New Zealand means it was grown here.
  • We think it’s time the government reconsidered its position on country of origin labelling.

The top five sources

The top five sources

The top five sources

The countries from which we import the most frozen fruit and vegetables are:

  • China - $14.3 million
  • Chile - $7.2 million
  • USA - $4.5 million
  • Vietnam - $1.4 million
  • Thailand - $1.2 million

Data from 2014 and sourced from Statistics NZ

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Member comments

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Steve B.
02 Sep 2018
Government speaks with a forked tongue.

How can the government say that its aligned with Oz for food labelling when Oz is so different to here.
https://www.woolworths.com.au/shop/discover/about-us/country-of-origin
There labelling is so good that when checking the standard honeys we found only one with 100% Ozzy honey, all the reste were imported blends.
After the bad Chinese press about their food, we wont go near it and the thought of every eating chinese broccoli makes me feel quiet sick.
We have an absolute right to know where our food comes from and this and the last government have sorely let us all down, siding with big business over the people.
Why?

Greg H.
18 Mar 2017
From local and/or imported ingredients

This is not information. The term does not need to exist as it tells us nothing. Surely its our right to know where things come from if we are paying money for them. And we should not need to phone the manufacturer every time we are fed mis-information.

Andrew R.
16 Jul 2016
New Zealand Producer Goods

It is disgusting that compulsory labelling is opposed as not being good for trade.

What about the idea of buying by informed consumers? Why is the government placing the interests of producers over consumers?

Ross M.
18 Jun 2016
Why this prejudice against China?

Nearly every comment so far shows or implies some sort of prejudice against China. I think this is based on ignorance rather than prejudice, but it is a worry. China is a huge country. It is stupid to think the polluted city environments we see on TV from time to time apply across the whole country. That is like assuming that all of Australia looks like West Sydney. The important thing in my view is food quality and the ability of suppliers to quickly identify and remove from the shelves all food from a batch that turns out to have problems.

Lyn w.
21 May 2016
Please ask Talleys

I have heard from trusted sources that although the produce Talleys use comes from NZ they get it processed in China, which sounds crazy but apparently true. Could you please check with them?

Lawrence W W.
05 Feb 2016
Chinese produce

Mortified to see companies importing in Chinese fruit and vegetables. This country has polluted soils and ground water supplies. It also has some of the most barbaric working conditions in the world and tehse companies are using Chinese produce as it costs a fraction of Kiwi produce. If I see China on any food, back it goes, a lot of pre packaged fish products are Chinese too (Especially Shore Mariner products) and the Vietnamese Cahora Bassa fish, which is grown polluted muddy swamps of the Mekong.

Basically if a country is China or 3rd world I leave it alone. Hopefully with the collapse of China, we can stop relying on Chinese goods so much.

Anna L.
08 Nov 2015
Sujon and Talleys all the way!

Yes I always check COO when buying frozen (and canned) produce.
I appreciate Sujon being upfront. And I'm ok with Canada and Chile as the originating country, so we can still have berries in our smoothies. But I will not buy tinned or frozen goods from China.
And well done to Talleys for being NZ only!
I worked out a long time ago that Watties was not NZ only....

Jonathan J.
10 Aug 2015
Spinach from China in Watties Super Mix

After reading the article I sent an email to Watties about their Super Mix frozen veggies which are made for "local and imported" ingredients. They promptly replied (which was excellent) and told me that some of the ingredients such as the broccoli may come from South America. I asked about the spinach and it turns out it comes from ... China.

Paul & Karen C.
08 Aug 2015
We do need CoO labelling to make informed choices

I make a point of only buying NZ produce if it's food we can grow here. We stopped buying canned fruit years ago & now bottle our own in summer. I buy Talleys frozen veges if I need them, because they do guarantee they're locally grown. I never buy any food produced in China. The only thing of USA origin would be prunes. I won't buy meat that isn't clearly labelled as NZ. I'd rather pay more for local food if I have to. If I can't get NZ I will sometimes buy Australian

Michael S.
08 Aug 2015
27 Jul 2015 Country of origin labelling

I think there is some naivety here. Countries like China have very polluted soils and are not as straight forward or honest as we might think here in New Zealand. Try looking up videos or stories on the state of farmland soil in China. Any of their own people who speak up about this are silenced. Wake up people!

In the manufacturing sector just talk with engineers from any company having products manufactured in China. Unless you have constant surveillance by your own engineers in the factory the product can not be trusted.