The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) said the proposed food standard will make it mandatory to declare the country of origin on all packaged foods and, in a new provision, the standard has new requirements for the labelling of unpackaged fish, fruit, vegetables and nuts, whether fresh or processed.
Country of origin statements will appear on a food label or on a sign displayed with "a food in a manner that is clear and unambiguous," said the agency.
FSANZ's general manager Food Standards, Dean Stockwell, has released for consultation a discussion paper on the latest country of origin labelling proposal, which would apply in Australia and New Zealand.
"The proposed standard seeks to strengthen the current country of origin labelling provisions in the Food Standards Code," commented Stockwell.
Packaged food must state the country of origin of the food in a separate statement. Unpackaged fresh fruit, vegetable, nuts and seafood must also state the actual country of origin, and not just state 'imported', he added.
If they are locally produced, unpackaged foods must be labelled as 'Australian produce' in Australia and as 'New Zealand produce' in New Zealand.'
Mr Stockwell said FSANZ has carefully considered the community response to previous suggestions on country of origin labelling requirements for food.
The latest proposal gives consumers the information they need for informed choice, dovetails with existing trade practices law and is consistent with the international obligations of Australia and New Zealand, claims FSANZ.
If the new food standard is approved, unpackaged fish, fruit, vegetables and nuts and packaged fresh produce will need new country of origin labelling within six months of the standard becoming law.
For all other packaged foods, a two-year phase in time will apply, with an additional twelve months for existing stocks.
The food watchdog has already held two rounds of public comment on country of origin labelling. But according to FSANZ, because "some stakeholders appear to feel strongly about this issue", the agency is taking the "unusual step of consulting again with consumers, growers, retailers and food manufacturers."
The FSANZ board is expected to consider the final report at the end of September, prior to a consideration by the Food Regulation Ministerial Council in late October 2005.
Reports from the Australian press suggest that federal ministers have backed the move, as have the states, led by Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon, who yesterday told a rally of farmers in Canberra that "shonky labelling scams" were undermining his state's $180 million vegetable industry.
Copies of the discussion paper are available on the FSANZ website.