In a surprise announcement, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot announced on 21 July 2015 the new labelling regime, earlier than expected.

This announcement follows a large public survey on the issue of country of origin food labelling, which had almost 18,000 responses.

In a press conference, along with the Hon. Ian Macfarlane, Minister for Industry and Science, and the Hon. Barnaby Joyce, Minister for Agriculture, Mr Abbott announced that the new country of origin food labels will begin to appear on supermarket shelves later this year.

The new regime is initially voluntary, but will become mandatory on phased basis commencing 2016.

The regime will require labels to tell consumers where products are made, grown or packaged. Locally processed food will include the new label, featuring the green and gold kangaroo triangle icon, with the proportion of ingredients from Australia being represented in a bar chart. Statements accompanying the icon will include things such as “Made in Australia from 100% Australian ingredients”, “Packed in Australia, made in Canada” and “Made in Australia from Australian carrots and French peas”. Australian products will feature a complete gold bar (with a sliding scale for products containing some Australian ingredients, and an empty bar for products with no Australian ingredients).

The statement “made in Australia” has been targeted, and under the new regime importing ingredients and simply cutting them in Australia, or putting them in a can in Australia, for example, will no longer qualify for a “made in” claim. Under the new regime, if an imported product is simply re-packed, the label must identify where the product came from.

While not mandatory, companies will also be encouraged to provide additional information, such as listing the origin of key ingredients.

While the general consensus has been that the introduction of a country of origin food labelling regime is a positive step forward, criticism has been directed towards the fact that the new regime does not require labelling for countries other than Australia to be displayed. For example, a product could state “Made in Australia from 0% Australian ingredients”, without the requirement that the company list the country of origin of the ingredients. Any ‘packed in Australia’ statements must include the country where the product is made or grown.

As noted Initial take up of the regime is voluntary, and it is likely we could see changes on the shelves later this year. The mandatory rollout will commence in 2016, with a phased implementation for small business.

The Australian Government will now work with the States and Territories, whose agreement is required to roll out the new labels under consumer law.