Just when we thought we could put a tick next to consumers being able to simply find out the country of origin of the food they were buying, politics came along and upset the apple cart.
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In a stunning move, Parliament’s Primary Production Select Committee has recommended a watered-down version of country of origin labelling. It wants to restrict the Consumers’ Right to Know bill to just fresh or frozen fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood. Originally it covered all single ingredient foods including nuts and grains, and packaged and unpackaged foods. Even that would have been much less information than consumers get just across the ditch.
The Select Committee asked for submissions on this radical change. We surely have submitted. We’ve also asked the governing parties, Labour and NZ First, to tell us where they stand. When we canvassed political parties before the last election, both Labour and NZ First told us they were right behind our call for origin labelling. If that’s changed, we want to know why.
Our research shows Kiwis strongly support country of origin labelling – 71% of people want it to be mandatory. Supermarkets and the powerful Food and Grocery Council lobbyists argue a voluntary scheme is already working effectively. However, our 2017 survey found 65% of people looked for origin labelling on fresh fruit but less than a third always found it. Even fewer (29%) always found it on fresh vegetables. And a voluntary system means no enforcement or independent monitoring (except by groups like us).
Unit pricing is another area where supermarkets say voluntary is best. Unit prices show the cost of an item per 100g or 100ml. That makes it easier for consumers to compare pack sizes – you can tell if a bigger and more expensive box of cereal really is better buying than a smaller one. But we regularly find non-compliance – that is, no unit pricing available.
The importance of knowing more about our food comes as food manufacturers ply us with misinformation about the nutritional value of what we eat. New Zealand is right at the head of the pack when it comes to obesity. But being among the fattest people on earth is hardly deserving of a medal or of allowing food manufacturers and lobbyists to have their way.
This issue is all about food – the tricks supermarkets use to make us buy more, how to read the labels, the difference between best-before and use-by dates, what the low-FODMAP diet is all about and whether you really need to be on it, and how we can really get traction with the health star rating system. Health star ratings are another “voluntary” system, which food manufacturers have been able to game to show sugary food and drinks as somehow being healthy.
We’ve had years of allowing the food industry to gets its “voluntary” house in order and the result has been more unhealthy New Zealanders than ever. It’s time to let the regulators have a go. Bah humbug (100% sugar-free).
By Sue Chetwin