Country of Origin Labelling

Green MP Sue Kedgley has struck a chord with a large sector of the public in yet again pushing the issue about labelling food with its country of origin. This issue is one of many that have been around for years, with tardy manufacturers and retailers making incremental improvements to their labelling to meet a minimal requirement imposed by legislation.

For a country that prides itself on its image, New Zealand producers go to great lengths to ensure that quality exported product capitalises on the New Zealand brand, but they are woefully lazy in providing domestic consumers with the same information. The simple reason is cost. Why go to such lengths to satisfy a small number of consumers?

As consumers, many of us blithely sail through the supermarket assuming that fruit and vegetables are locally grown, and that products manufactured or processed by domestic companies contain only local ingredients. However, this is rarely the case. The seasonal nature of crops means that importing is necessary during the off-season, as we have become accustomed to eating capsicums, courgettes, oranges etc. that are well out of season. Who wants to return to the old days when the prices of seasonal vegetables swung violently as the supply waxed and waned, and we were starved of quality salad ingredients during the dark days of winter?

The simple fact is that few people read the labels on canned, frozen and other products even to check the “use by” date. If you don’t believe me, just stand and watch the canned goods and freezer aisles at your local supermarket for a minute. Many shoppers will whiz through grabbing product according to label or brand, and hoover up alternatives when they are on special.

The incremental labelling improvements that have been made during the last 15 years or so are the inclusion of expiry date, notification of nut content, batch number, and manufacturing location. This change has been successful because it is of mutual benefit to both supplier and consumer as allergy issues and managing production run errors have become public health matters that need to be managed to avoid litigation and protect brand loyalty.

A manufacturers’ representative on Radio New Zealand National this morning implied that providing country of origin information on products manufactured or processed in New Zealand is not possible. To use a Solar System analogy, it was suggested that supply difficulties during a production run would mean that suddenly having to source tomatoes, say, from Venus rather than Mars would create logistical nightmares for the labelling department and any oversight would give the company’s legal department sleepless nights. This is sheer twaddle.

Under current law, the manufacturer already has to have this information for each batch of product that leaves their factory. There is no reason why they couldn’t make this information available to the supermarket electronically and still protect the secrecy of their recipe.

There are already food retailers who provide interactive information terminals in their stores, and one supermarket chain offers scan-as-you-go shopping. However, too many of the food retailers regard the deployment of technology as an issue driven by their own need, rather than a mutual benefit to both them and their customers.

A couple of interactive information terminals in each supermarket would allow those who are interested in content information to query the store database. The technology exists to automatically scan the barcode and batch number, if suitable attention is paid to their printing, when the customer waves the product in front of a scanning device. In the case of the Solar System Canning Company’s product, the screen could then display something like the following:

Venusian style canned tomatoes
Tomatoes (diced & puree) (94%) [Saturn]
Onions (3%) [Mars, Earth]
Venus peppers [Mercury, Venus]
Sugar, Salt, Maize Thickener (1422). [Mars, Earth, Neptune]
Spices (including Cumin, Paprika and Martian Moondust) [Mercury, Venus, Mars, Io, Phobos]
Herb extract, Food Acid (Citric Acid) [Saturn, Venus, Jupiter]
May contain traces of Lunar nuts.
BEST BEFORE 3rd December 2020

I can hear retailers squealing about co$t as I type this, but this is a smokescreen. There was little complaint from supermarket operators about the cost of deploying barcode scanning at checkouts during the late 1980s even though it offered very little advantage to customers in its early days, and was distrusted by many shoppers. The fact is that the database and network infrastructure now exists in supermarkets and is used all the time during restocking and checkout activities. The addition of information terminals would cost a few thousand dollars per outlet, and some code crunching would be required to provide and acquire the country of origin information.

A canny supermarket operator would see the benefits of running such infrastucture, even if it was used by only 10% of customers. The present loyalty schemes which result in your purchasing behaviour being frantically marketed virtually before you’ve escaped the clutches of the checkout could be enhanced to provide a more balanced benefit. In addition to being able to signal that they didn’t want to purchase product from Pluto, the customer could indicate that they had a family member who was lactose intolerant or allergic to wheat or nut content and, after waving their “preference” card at the information terminal, could receive appropriate warnings as products were scanned.

Suppliers and retailers would also receive equivalent benefits through identifying unpopular products in more detail. Instead of simply noticing a decline in sales of Martian glopfruit, the manufacturer could learn that they were unpopular because a particular batch was processed on Jupiter or contained herbs grown on the Jovian moons.

The foreign content of locally manufactured product is only one of several food-related issues causing public concern at present, and follows on from discussion about some pork labelled with an iconic New Zealand label containing imported pork. The campylobacter content of our chicken is a recurring issue, and some of us marvel at the NZ Food Safety Authority’s willingness to plunge headlong downhill on a bicycle with their hands off the handlebars by ignoring concerns about the lack of testing of imported products. Even more bizarre is the fact that a beef-producing nation imports beef, but there may be more to this than has been aired, such as the importing of specialty products like grain-fed beefsteak for niche markets.

The carpet is becoming a bit lumpy from hiding these swept-up issues, and someone is going to trip over them soon. But the consumer who wants an improvement on these matters has to realise that it cuts both ways. New Zealand exports its own share of glop that many of us wouldn’t touch with a forty-foot bargepole. What we do here will trigger a counter-response from trading partners, and that could have an impact on prices and jobs.

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