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Dr Muriel Newman

A New Parliament and the Labelling of Food

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This week’s newsletter is being sent out as the polling booths for the 2017 General Election are closing. Since it may be some time before we know the final shape of our new Government, let’s look at what needs to happen before New Zealand’s 52nd Parliament can begin to operate.

From the time the 51st Parliament was dissolved on August 22nd until the new Government is sworn in, the ‘old’ Government continues to run the country in a ‘caretaker’ role.

However, once the election results become clear, the Constitution Act 1986 enables a new Government to take office immediately. That means as soon as Parliamentary Parties agree to form a new Government – irrespective of whether or not that includes the ‘largest’ party – the Governor-General will confirm it.

Within six weeks of the official election results being confirmed on Thursday 12th of October, the Governor-General must summon together all successful candidates for the State Opening of Parliament. New Members of Parliament take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, the Speaker is elected and Cabinet Ministers are sworn in.

The following day the Governor-General delivers the Speech from the Throne, which sets out the new Government’s legislative agenda. During the ensuing 19-hour Address in Reply debate, new Members deliver their maiden speeches, but most importantly, ‘confidence’ in the new Government is tested in the House. If the Government survives that ‘no confidence motion’, it’s right to govern is confirmed and will continue until that support is withdrawn, or until the electoral cycle again comes to an end.

One of the prerogatives of a new Government is to decide which items of business that were before the last Parliament should be reinstated.  

Under Section 20 of the Constitution Act, all parliamentary business before the House and its committees, lapses when Parliament is dissolved. The Cabinet Manual explains that government departments are expected to examine the lapsed parliamentary business relating to their portfolio areas and advise their new Ministers on the implications of either reinstating or not reinstating each item. This allows the new Government to discard any bills, inquiries or other matters that do not fit within its agenda. Once that decision has been made, all business to be progressed is then reinstated in the next session of Parliament by a resolution of the House.

As the Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee explained, after the 2014 election, when he moved the ‘Reinstatement of Business’ motion in Parliament, “As Parliaments transition, all the legislation before the previous Parliament, in theory, ceases to exist, and a Government gets to choose, when it is re-elected or elected, which should carry over. In this instance, we wish to reinstate all of the business that is on the Order Paper.”

One of the bills that is likely to be reinstated is the Consumers’ Right to Know (Country of Origin of Food) Bill – a Private Member’s Bill proposed by former Green Party MP Stephan Browning, that was being considered by the Primary Production Select Committee.

The Bill would make it mandatory for all packaged food with one ingredient to have a label that identifies which country it comes from, and for all unpackaged food to have a country of origin statement displayed with the food. That would mean that all single-ingredient foods such as vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, nuts, grains, seeds, or oils would need a label to identify which country they come from – including all single ingredient food that has been preserved or frozen.

While country of origin labelling is mandatory for wine, clothing and shoes in New Zealand, it is not compulsory for food. That means the “produced in New Zealand” frozen vegetables in your freezer could have been grown in China, or the “manufactured in New Zealand” bacon in your fridge could have been made from pork factory-farmed in Spain.

According to a survey carried out in March by Horticulture New Zealand and Consumer NZ, seventy-one percent of New Zealanders want to know where their fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables come from, and 70 percent want to be able to buy ‘New Zealand-grown’.

A study carried out by Massey University in 2013 had similar findings: “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.”

Over the years, both Labour and National Governments have considered this matter, consistently recommending voluntary country of origin labelling, rather than mandatory prescriptive regulation. Their reasoning is based on the fact that even though country of origin labelling is not a food safety imperative, its impact would nevertheless be substantial – increasing the cost of food and creating trade barriers. In other words, the costs and risks of government intervention were deemed to be too great.

The reality is that every labelling change increases the cost of food, and is ultimately passed on to consumers. When mandatory country of origin labelling was proposed for the United States a few years ago, an economic analysis showed that while the benefits were likely to be negligible, the estimated first-year costs for growers, producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers ranged from US$582 million to $3.9 billion. After ten years, the estimated cost to the US economy in higher food prices and reduced food production ranged from $138 million to $596 million.

When a similar cost-benefit analysis was undertaken by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research for Food Standards Australia New Zealand in 2005, it estimated that the cost of compliance and enforcement passed on to consumers, would be in the region of $60 million to over $100 million.

In fact, in their submission to the Select Committee on the Green Party bill, NZ Sugar explained that the cost of having to comply with country of origin labelling had been estimated at over $20 million, as the raw sugar shipments from different countries, delivered to the Chelsea Sugar refinery, would need to be separated out.

The Ministry for Primary Industries says cost that is the main reason why New Zealand’s country of origin labelling scheme for food is voluntary, instead of compulsory: “Voluntary use of country of origin labelling, in response to consumer interest, delivers the benefits without imposing additional costs on all consumers or compromising New Zealand’s trading interests.”

The law that regulates country of origin food labelling in New Zealand is the Fair Trading Act.  Under section 13(j) of the Act, “No person shall… make a false or misleading representation concerning the place of origin of goods.” If a breach occurs, the Commerce Commission, which administers the Act, may impose fines of up to $200,000 for individuals and $600,000 for companies.

Such action has been taken in the past – including against a distributor who falsely claimed that canned tomatoes from Spain were of New Zealand origin, and against suppliers who claimed their ham and bacon were produced in New Zealand, when the ‘essential character’ of their products was provided by pork of overseas origin.

In fact, a food’s essential character is considered by the Commerce Commission to be a key factor in determining country of origin. But this can be complex. Take the case of New Zealand brewed beer, which is mostly made up of water along with malt and hops that may be imported – is it the New Zealand water or the imported hops and malt that provides its ‘essential quality’?

With most of our imported frozen fruit and vegetables coming from China (over $14 million), Chile (over $7 million), USA (over $4 million), Vietnam (over $1 million), and Thailand (over $1 million), in 2015, Consumer NZ undertook an investigation into country of origin labelling of frozen berries and vegetables in supermarkets.

They found spinach and broccoli from China, mashed potatoes from Belgium and strawberries from Peru. Of the 81 packets they looked at, 17 had vague statements that the product was made or packed in New Zealand from local and/or imported ingredients that made it impossible to tell where the food had actually come from.

With most frozen berries imported, berry companies were upfront about where their berries had come from, listing multiple countries of origin on their labels.

But when it came to frozen vegetables, they found there was no consistent approach to labelling.

Talley’s was the only company found to use 100 percent New Zealand grown produce. They clearly labelled their products as “100% New Zealand Grown”.

While McCain labelled broccoli from China and brussels sprouts from the Netherlands, its frozen capsicums, cubed pumpkin and sliced mushrooms were “packed in New Zealand from imported ingredients”, and so could have been sourced from anywhere.

While Wattie’s claimed that more than 80 percent of its frozen vegetables are grown in New Zealand, it also sourced ingredients from Belgium, China, Ecuador, Guatemala, Spain, Thailand and the USA, with some vegetable mixes having only vague statements about their country of origin.

It was a similar story with supermarket house brands. Some products stated their country of origin clearly, while others were labelled “made in New Zealand from local and imported ingredients”. Even the order of words in such statements mattered – if ‘local’ came first, that meant more than 50 percent of the ingredients came from local sources, but if ‘imported’ was first, more than 50 percent of the ingredients were imported.

In other words, the variation in food labelling was confusing to consumers, who increasingly want to know where food comes from so they can make informed choices about what they eat.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, rural journalist Alan Emerson, makes the case for country of origin food labelling:

“I remain confused as to why New Zealand doesn’t have mandatory Country of Origin Labelling on food. The first responsibility of a government, any government is the welfare of its citizens and Country of Origin Labelling does just that.

“It is also logical. We have a right to know where our food comes from. We should also have the option of being able to support our local producers. Without Country of Origin Labelling we can’t do that.”

The Select Committee received almost 300 submissions on the food labelling Bill. Many industry submitters expressed the view that while they supported voluntary country of origin labelling, they did not support mandatory labelling on matters not related to food safety or nutrition.

Many found the Bill confusing – as Retail NZ explained: “While the Bill purports to require labelling of single component foods, it in fact goes quite a lot further, requiring products that are preserved, coloured or flavoured also to be labelled. This is problematic because there could be multiple ingredients in a single jar, with multiple countries of origin for the various ingredients.”

Some exporters warned that the compulsory labelling of New Zealand food would prevent them from being able to argue against protectionist measures internationally. In fact, Fonterra requested the Committee to seek advice from officials on this issue, “given the risk that mandatory labelling could be perceived as trade restrictive or discriminatory by our trading partners, leaving us open to legal challenge or retaliation”.

In considering the fraught issue of food labelling, it’s important to remember that Members’ Bills do not undergo the same rigorous regulatory impact analysis that Government Bills are subjected to. That means that the costs and benefits of such Bills are often not adequately investigated or disclosed.

The Bill, as drafted, is likely to create consequences well beyond its good intentions. Once the new Parliament gets back into its legislative programme, Select Committee Members picking up the Bill should ask officials to prepare a comprehensive cost benefit analysis, to quantify the potential impact on food prices. In addition, they should be asked to report on alternatives to mandatory regulation that would satisfy the desire of consumers for country or origin labelling – especially for fruit and vegetables. Not to do so would be to ignore the complexities and costs associated with this thorny issue.


Should country of origin labelling of food remain voluntary or become compulsory? 


*Poll comments are posted below.


*All NZCPR poll results can be seen in the Archive.

Click to view x 120


Hey – if it is not disclosed and you are not comfortable; don’t buy it. it’s that easy Peter
In the same way that a plastic water bottle should bear an ‘ultimate cost’ of its disposal/recycling or environmental damage; globalization demands the ultimate cost of ‘informed consent’. If that cost is about the same as old-time tariffs & incentives which maintained local production, hence no real labeling issue, all the better! Another stake through the heart of the elitist corporate vampires, another nail in the coffin of the false-prophet neoliberalism. Wally
Absolutely! Valerie
We need to know. Brian
Become Compulsory Lynn
I am 73 and am still alive having eaten food with no labelling for the past 73 years.So why do we need labelling now.It will cost heaps and once again we will have more public servants pushing more paper across their desks Richard
Voluntary, because we don’t need MORE bureaucracy and MORE TAX to pay for it. We have to learn that the biggest incentive for any retailer is taking our custom elsewhere. Mark
Don’t purchase anything not properly labled. Manufacturers and importers soon turn to labling when their goods don’t sell and have to be disposed of. If we use our purchasing power and choice they have to come our way. Johan
It would seem very straight forward for fruit and vegetables to be tagged with the country of origin and as far as manufactured foods are concerned, if the manufacturer can identify the origin of ALL ingredients then they would be entitled to say so on the label. Otherwise they would need to state “Origin of all ingredients not established.” The consumer when then have the choice to buy or not. This would give the really snart manufactureres an opportunity to develop “Premium” blends that the consumer could rely on. This would need to be matched by regulators with the power to shut cheats down. Ronmac
Unimpressed with A. Emerson’s one-sided article. Against any Greens regulation especially if it puts the price of food up. Monica
I agree that it can be perceived to be a trade barrier. However, everyone should be have ready access to information about any product they purchase. In terms of food products, where the food has been grown is an important, if not essential, piece of information. It is very surprising that NZ has not yet adopted this practice. Ian
The purchasing contract is between the Store and the food item supplier. The store customer cannot take any action on this info. It should remain volunary, so as to prevent any more food price increases.  Pierre
Need certainty of origin. Catherine
I want to be able to identify where fruit, veges, and animal products are grown and so be able to support local growers. For example I dont want to buy pork from China. Lorraine
Myself and my family should be given the choice of where the food was grown before we purchase for consumption. I would never inadvertently purchase food grown in China, India or Sth East Asia. Wayne
The sooner the better.  Robert
We are expected to eat it all  Jim
Damn straight. I want to know where what I eat is coming from for reasons that will be obvious to anyone with half a brain or any compassion. Andy
We all want to know what’s in our food and where it came from buy not so much if it is going to mean an increase in prices. Helen
My reasons:8 *food safety concerns most important. but also:. *support for local producers. Bob
No Brainer. Peter
But should be compulsory for meat and all processed meat products such as ham, bacon and sausages. Kerry
Easier than bar coding introduction!  Rob
The sooner the better David
Current voluntary is not being adhered to sufficiently clearly and I believe it is our right to be well informed and to choose on the basis of true information Jan
Wait until you find out what the Chinese use for manure! Mitch
For our health sake as Chinese food sources is a little bit suspect. Graeme
Country of origin labelling should be compulsory and introduced as soon as possible, It is surely a consumer’s fundamental right to know the country of origin of all food on sale in New Zealand, whether processed or unprocessed, packaged or sold loose or in bulk.  Les
That should mean multiple listings for mixed products. Steven
We need to know what it is and where it’s come from Andre
It’s important for consumers Neil
Does it matter where a fruit or vegetable is grown. Everything is grown the same whatever the country it is grown in . It is only a persons personal taste that they will give preference to fruit “A” from “B” as opposed to fruit :C” from “D”. Dennis
I prefer not to use Chinese sourced products because I don’t trust them to adhere to the necessary standards. If components of a food product come from different sources, them I believe they shoud be detailed one packaging. Seems to be easy enough for producers to put multitudes of ingredients on the package, so this would only be a small step. Anyway, do other countries want us to buy their products, or not? Neil
This is something which is long overdue. Country of origin must be made manditory to protect consumers. Brian
What we don’t know is the conditions under which our food may be produced or processed. Don
All foodstuffs are dear enough now without the added cost that would be incurred with mandatory labelling. Helen
With all this imported food now a days we need to know what we are eating  Russell
We NEED to know….have you any idea about the food handling in some of our source-countries? We need to know what to wash and for how long. We need to know which foodstuffs brought in raw nwil have needed chemical or other processing ,and we need to know that to pass by simply because we have lived and visited in some way way-out places and know what we would not prefer to consume at site or origin. Mabel
I want to know what I’m eating  Peter
I prefer to know where my food has been grown. Maddi
I like to know what I’m eating, alot of food from China ETC you DONT know whats in it. Cindy
I check labels and buy overseas products, eg dates from Iran, apricots from Turkey happily, when they are clearly labelled with country of origin Helen
I have noticed that many items on supermarkets shelves do not have USE BY dates on them. Is this not compulsory?  Deborah
Food safety is important. Doug
We all need to know where our food items are grown and packaged  Keith
It’s just common sense I think! Cyril
Where there is high consumer demand for information, the market will react much more flexibly and effectively than the bureaucracy. Barry
We need to know the source in order to guard against importation of potentially unsafe products Harvey 
Most definitely compulsory and clearly labelled. We must be given All ingredients as well. Some consumers are allergic to certain things so MUST know what is really in the food they are buying. Graeme
I want to know where my food comes from. There have been too many cases where food companies prioritize commercial decisions over healthy ones. I therefore need to make an informed decision about what I put in my body; regardless if the financial implications. Simon
No reason why voluntary disclosure could not be actively encouraged. Could even require or encourage retailers to display “unspecified origin” foods separately from those observing the voluntary disclosure labelling. Alan
We also need to know what processes that food has gone through to make it safe for importation; especially fresh produce which is treated for bio-security reasons. What chemicals have been used as many are hazardous to human health. Kevin
I always want to know where my food comes from and want to be able to choose which country I buy from. Rosemary
Allowance should be made for minor ingredients such as pepper. Peter
If the price is right then the product is purchased Tom
While it’s a great outcome I believe if labeling became compulsory the bureaucrats would hijack the system & impose prohibitive costs onto producers. Also I am skeptical about any bill a Green MP comes up with.  Rex
I want to know where the food I eat comes from.  Gary
Should be compulsory no ifs or buts Mike
Absolutely compulsory. Nothing is more insulting to a discriminating consumer than “local and imported ingredients”. A lot of people are wary and sceptical of foreign-grown foods, especially from China and the USA where wholesale poison spraying is employed. Colin
Not only should it be compulsory, it should also be TRUTHFUL. e.g. extra virgin olive oil from Europe that fails to meet the international standards that NZ producers are required to do. Kerry
Definitely. Yes. Don
Consumers can change importers labeling by not purchasing goods that are not clearly defined. Stuart
It should be compulsory for safety reasons as well. I look at items before I buy to ensure of the product as I prefer N Z goods (One item that needs looking into is Peanut Butter as peanuts are not grown in N Z they are in China and in some parts of Australia) so where is the rest of the product made) As for costing more put it onto those that supply not onto the consumer as it should be their expense to be truthful plus to allow products into N Z.  MARYLIN
It will be incredibly difficult but the battle will be worthwhile. Russell
I always try to buy NZ made and I only buy NZ fruit & vegetables except for bananas, pineapples and the like which we do not grow commercially.  Sarah
Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from Bryan
Surely David
I want to support NZ producers. Ross
The welfare of our citizens is influenced by the Country of Origin Ian
As an ex food processing manager, I can assure you, it won’t cost that much more and it will benefit the whole Buy NZ made thing. Geoff
It is a joke to suggest there are any logical reasons to not be accurate as to what is contained within a food package and which countries they are sourced from – and I also would prefer to purchase NZ produced food products. Rob
We all have a right to know and therefore make an informed decision. Leaving it up to importers and distributors to disclose what they wish to is a really bad idea. I am an importer, manufacturer and keeping records and disclosing countries of origin is not difficult. Those who claim to the contrary probably have something to hide. Peter
We have the right to know. Peter
There is no reason why food should not be labelled compulsorily. Manufacturers who use a variety of sources in processed fods simply need to reveal all those sources on their labels – to me an easy task. We already do it for other products like clothes – food is more important than clothes, being responsible for consumers’ health. Liz
Too expensive and more govt. legislation. Curiosity about food origins doesn’t change anything. If you need a capsicum and there are non grown locally, you either go without if you feel that strongly, or you buy an imported one. Welfare of citizens is a red herring. Imports should be randomly tested as standard business practice. Charles
I would like to know what is in my food that I buy. To much food suff from over seas coming into this country and we don’t know what we a eating. Robert
We need to know where our food is being sourced. Any processed food out of China is always a concern. Best to eat locally produced and fresh foods wherever possible. We still produce some of the cleanest and best quality food on the planet so we should buy NZ first. Steve
Monsanto ‘Genetically modified’ seed products need to be pervented from entering NZ. Jim
The frozen beans and peas in NZ are disgusting particularly those with the Watties brand. I have had occasion to write to Watties about the peas and asking whether they were grown in China but this was denied in their reply. Baby peas which were hard like bullets and had an “old” flavour are definitely not like the peas we grew up with. Something is not right here and I for one want to know where our food is grown. Mary
Canned Tomatoes from Italy where the tomatoes are actually sourced from China. Come on regulate so we know. Dave
Some foodstuffs are from multiple sources. We need to be confident in the quality of food without lumbering yet another cost on producers / retailers. Philip
I bought salted peanuts with a made from local and imported ingredients label. We don’t grow peanuts in NZ so what was the local content? Salt! Europe has much better labelling and often you can also tell where it comes from by the bar code. We need to know. Most kiwis are unaware 52% of or pork is imported. Can you tell that by the labeling on the packaging? Peter
I want to know where my food comes from, so I can make a choice about whether to buy product A or product B depending on how and where it was produced. David
Percentages of imported food should be mandatory as should home produced. Home produced taking top spot on labeling. Laurel
And it should be clearly stated on all food packaging whether or not GMOs are included in the food. Alan
Many countries do not have the controls on the use of plant sprays ie withholding periods before harvest. There is no way of knowing if foreign vegetables are safe to eat. Especially vegetables sourced from China. ts only a few years ago they had the exploding watermelons due to over use of chemical fertilisers. How about canned vegetables from overseas there is no testing these for carryover chemicals. Gary
Snow peas from Zimbabwe? This is what’s happening! John
The reality is there are some dodgy operators in the supply chain.This is a case of the consumer ‘s right to know. Lee
AND more to the point there should be labelling relating to glyphosphate use; GM food (all soy is now GM) and GAMMA irradiation that causes CANCERS yet is routinely even maybe UNIVERSALLY used on all imported foods if not everything. It was banned technology yet NZ bought into irradiation for “Biosecurity”. yes; treat your populace with contempt and never ever consider the precautionary principle. Bribing students is the illustration of the immoral intellectual paucity and capability of some disgusting gravy train politicians purporting to be environmentally attuned yet never ever consider palm oil and palm kernel and how it’s use destroys rain forests in Sumatra just to make a quick dollar. USA and NZ feed palm kernel to dairy cattle; no-one else does. Hypocracy and apartheid NZ. Zoran
This seems like a no-brainer and not something any manufacturer should have difficulty with. Michael
Too costly Simon
Needed for consistency. Mark
In a free society which we are not, nothing should be compulsory. Compulsion is the tool of every would-be tyrant. “Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.” – Ayn Rand Don
I like to know where my food comes from and some foods from some countries I would not choose to eat. David
Yes, compulsory. This would cut out all the rogues, the cheats, the fakes and the sharks.  Stuart
I’m against new regulation, especially if it forces up the price of food. So no – no mandatory labelling.   David
Why can’t those running the voluntary scheme do more to get those who aren’t complying to do so? Surely industry groups don’t want compulsory labelling.  Gail
I would like to know more about the origin of fruit and veg, but I don’t think we should have to pay more.  Peter
I don’t think people were told the full story in that Consumer poll – if they had been told that mandatory labelling will result in higher food prices and it could penalise our exporters, people might not have been so keen to support compulsory labelling.  Bryan
The Greens want to regulate anything that moves. Stewart