Sparks flew over mandarins and coffee at Parliament, as New Zealand’s food superpowers flexed their muscles. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

The food industry has spoken out strongly against mandatory country of origin labelling, calling it unnecessary, expensive, and impractical.

Fonterra, Federated Farmers, Beef & Lamb New Zealand, NZ Pork, the New Zealand Sugar Company (Chelsea), and Seafood New Zealand all lined up to present before the Primary Production Select Committee on Thursday.

The committee was considering Green MP Steffan Browning’s Private Member’s Bill, which proposes mandatory labelling for fruit, vegetables, and other single component foods.

The New Zealand Food and Grocery Council was also there, and its chief executive Katherine Rich was the first to draw the ire of Labour MP Damien O’Connor.

Earlier, Consumer NZ had told the committee it had completed a mystery shopper exercise in Wellington and discovered several examples of fruit and vegetables being wrongly labelled.

These included mandarins with stickers stating they were from California but a sign saying they were Australian, and asparagus labelled as being from the USA, but with a sign reading “fresh from New Zealand”.

Rich told the committee that her members would have supported the Bill if it just meant labelling fruit and vegetables, which most already did voluntarily.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, [what about] mandarins? That’s what it is, it’s a lie to the public …”

But O’Connor scoffed at the suggestion, pointing to Consumer’s findings.

“How can you trust the voluntary scheme when your members lie?”

Rich bristled at this, calling it unfair and beginning a tense few minutes where each spoke over the other.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, [what about] mandarins? That’s what it is, it’s a lie to the public,” O’Connor retorted.

National MP Chester Burrows reminded O’Connor to mind his manners and said while the examples were obvious mistakes, it did not mean they were made with malice and Rich agreed.

But, refusing to back down, O’Connor called this naive.

“You cannot say that, they’ve stacked those shelves.”

Representatives from the Commerce Commission would go on to say later in the hearing that such mislabelling could be a legal issue, and they would be interested in receiving evidence on the situation.

“Nightmare territory”

The main theme that ran through all the food producer’s submissions was the potential difficulty of labelling products with multiple ingredients of shifting origins, as well as the pointlessness of it.

While it would be simple to include a country of origin label on some single-source foods, there were others that included ingredients in small amounts that came from various countries.

Rich argued there was no need for products such as tea and sugar to be labelled as New Zealanders already knew they were not made in New Zealand.

Katherine Rich illustrating why there is no need for country of origin labelling on products like sugar. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

She also pointed to coffee as a product that would encounter difficulties, as many main brands were blended from beans from several countries.

When people are putting that teaspoon of sugar on their porridge in the morning, do they really want to know that sugar could come from Ecuador, Guatemala, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, China, Pakistan etc?”

Philip Turner, Fonterra’s global stakeholder affairs director, said while it was unclear if the Bill would cover dairy products it could have unintended consequences for the sector if it did.

Many products included trace ingredients from overseas, such as salt, which could prohibit Fonterra from using New Zealand as a stamp of quality.

The voluntary labelling system was working well and there was no need to complicate things, he said.

“I think if you move beyond single component you’re in real nightmare territory.”

The seafood industry was also worried about complicated products, particularly those containing multiple species.

Seafood New Zealand standards manager Cathy Webb said the Bill lacked clarity and could cause problems for products such as fish fingers that were made up of many different types of fish.

The origin of a product was also not always clear. She gave the example of canned tuna, which could be caught and processed in New Zealand but shipped to Thailand to be canned, before being sent back here for sale.

Most submitters were also concerned about the financial implications of the Bill, which they said could have a huge impact.

John Ellis, chief financial officer of the NZ Sugar Company (maker of the well-known Chelsea brand), said the company imported unrefined sugar from multiple countries.

These were all stored together and if the company had to redesign its facility to keep sugar from each country separate, and regularly change labels, it would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.

An ideal situation was to source all the sugar it needed from one provider, but that was almost impossible due to supply demands and events that could impact on production, he said.

New Zealand Pork was a lone industry voice supporting the Bill, which it believed would remove confusion for consumers.

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