Prompted by the frozen berries Hepatitis A scare, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane have been asked by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to prepare a cabinet submission on reforms to country-of-origin labelling laws.

Mr MacFarlane has promised major changes to Australia’s food labelling laws in the wake of the frozen berries scare, proposing the use of symbols and larger print on packaging to show whether food is Australian grown or imported. The Minister confirmed that the ‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients’ declaration would be scrapped, instead requiring the percentage of Australian product to be listed. The submission was due before cabinet at the end of March, with a subsequent submission scheduled for August. The Ministers are currently consulting with consumers and industry stakeholders.

The Greens and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has also introduced a bill on the issue of Country of Origin food labelling – the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Australian Country of Origin Food Labelling) Bill 2015 (Food Labelling Bill). This bill was introduced before Mr Abbott requested the cabinet submission on this issue, and the Food Labelling Bill is currently before the Senate. If passed, the Food Labelling Bill would introduce a three-tiered system of food labelling, dependent upon the origin of the ingredients and any significant packaging and processing occurring in Australia. The Food Labelling Bill also includes significant penalties for parties who fail to comply with country of origin labelling requirements – up to $250,000 for a corporation or $50,000 for an individual.

Any new labelling laws will need to pass the parliament, and then the government will have to confirm that they do not contravene any of Australia’s World Trade Organisation obligations.

There is a real possibility that requiring a higher standard on imported foods or labelling could amount to a barrier to trade: expressly forbidden under most free trade agreements. The 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade also prevents giving domestically produced goods an unfair advantage over imported goods, unless such restriction fulfils a ‘legitimate objective’.

In addition such action may undercut efforts to push forward with global harmonisation of food standards.