A trans-Tasman review of food labelling looks set to also canvass whether risky foods from overseas are being sent to Australia from New Zealand.


Imported foods are checked by Australian biosecurity staff at the border, but these inspections mainly focus on consignments of certain “risk foods” and foods that have previously not complied with regulations – often in the area of labelling.

But only “risk foods” imported from New Zealand are subject to Australia’s Imported Food Control Act, so all the other food from around the world imported into New Zealand then forwarded to Australia is not inspected after it crosses the Tasman.

The committee overseeing the review is to start public consultations in Wellington (March 25) and Christchurch (March 26). On Saturday it released an issues consultation paper for the independent review (www.foodlabellingreview.gov.au), headed by Neal Blewett.

The review is seeking consistency in food labelling standards on both sides of the Tasman, and agreement on when to warn offenders or prosecute them, and whether national authority covering such issues should be in an existing agency or a stand-alone body.

It will also canvass the basics – should governments continue to enforce such issues or let industry “self regulate” , and if this happened should the Commerce Commission and its Australian equivalent still regulate misleading or deceptive food labelling?

Alcohol labelling is also governed by food standards, but some consumers and manufacturers are expected to argue that alcoholic beverages should not be treated as food, should not have to provide nutrition information panels, list ingredients, or have labels promoting safer drinking.

One of the most controversial debates will be over the processes which decide whether a product is a “food” or a “medicine”.

In the absence of a trans-Tasman therapeutics agency, the two countries have quite different approaches to defining foods and complementary medicines, with a significant number of dietary supplements being allowed into Australia from New Zealand.

Some health advocates have protested over high-caffeine energy drinks not allowed to be made in Australia but being imported from New Zealand, because they are legal there.

People will also be asked whether and how regulation of foods should be used to meet broader public health objectives – such as lowering obesity because of saturated fats, reducing cardiac disease due to high cholesterol levels, and cutting down on salt levels in takeaways blamed for blood pressure problems.

Consumers are to be asked whether they want information or educational material provided on an internet link. Some consumers are concerned about inadequate disclosure of ingredients (colourings and flavourings, processing aids, allergens, trans-fats, palm oil) and the way they are represented (code numbers, or scientific names instead of generic names).

Consumers may also be asked whether manufacturers should be allowed to claim a food can reduce the risk of a specific disease.

They are not allowed to do this at present without providing scientific evidence. The committee is also expected to consider whether food labels should be able to claim – such as in the case of some weight-loss brands – that a product has little fat, without disclosing it is riddled with sugars and salt.

Similarly, there will be questions raised over regulating use of terms such as natural, lite, free range, virgin olive oil, kosher and halal.

Genetic engineering, irradiation and nano-technology have raised consumer concerns, but the committee said calls for their disclosure on food labels needs caution “in order that the development and application of these and other innovative technologies are not unduly inhibited”.