It took 14 years but ‘better late than never’
Everyone congratulated everyone else and there were high fives throughout Wellington. Actually, this explosive atmosphere of champagne pops and streamers probably owed more to sheer surprise than anything else. Because, in fact, everyone had almost given up on CoOL. Let’s be clear – this campaign has been going 14 years, and counting. It was launched in 2003. So when the bill was selected from the ballot last year – which is sheer luck – it set hearts pounding and there was rejoicing just short of street parties throughout the land. Fourteen years is a long time. No one saw it coming.
But let’s go back to the beginning when then Green MP and tireless food safety campaigner Sue Kedgley launched the campaign for mandatory country of origin labelling for food.
“The campaign began in 2003 in response to FSANZ [Food Standards Australia New Zealand] calling for submissions on a proposal for mandatory country of origin labelling of food, and I realized the government was opposing this.”
So it seems New Zealanders have always been clear about this – they have always wanted mandatory CoOL for fresh fruit and vegetables. The recent Horticulture New ZealandConsumers Institute survey said the same thing. While this 2017 result sent a ripple of warm fuzzies and hugs throughout the land, back in 2005 the idea sent politicians and officials screaming from the room.
The 2005 petition was presented to Parliament and that very day, or the next, New Zealand’s main supermarkets began voluntary country of origin labelling on fresh fruit and vegetables, which was a big step forward. “People were outraged [about the lack of CoOL] and momentum was building.”
Sue's petition was the subject of a select committee inquiry. But select committees were wary, and most shrieked in fear As part of the campaign Sue took shoppers on supermarket when they saw CoOL coming. tours around the country. She showed them the difference
“No select committee wanted to touch it. It ended up with between imported food, and locally grown food. She
the health select committee because all the others refused to pointed out that there was no label to tell consumers
look at it.” where their garlic, pork or other food came from. But sometimes it was possible to tell the difference – Chinese Both National and Labour voted against it due mainly to an garlic looked very different to locally grown, for instance. “obsession” with free trade. “Twenty years ago New Zealanders didn’t realise how “The big thrust against it was the government’s belief that much of their food was imported. It didn’t occur to us it would undermine its free trade liberalisation agenda. [because New Zealand was a food producing nation] and Which was nonsense, of course. Most other nations and our we assumed the food on sale in supermarkets was mostly trading partners were already committed to country of origin grown here.” labelling.” Around that time massive amounts of Chinese garlic was Australia has had mandatory CoOL on food for many years. being imported, which undercut the New Zealand garlic New Zealand politicians and their advisors were adamant that industry. The local industry shrank and this rang alarm CoOL would undermine New Zealand’s ability to export, and bells for Sue. She predicted segments of the New Zealand no amount of argument would budge them. CoOL had come growing industry could be “decimated” by unlabelled up against a mysterious and impenetrable barrier. imports. “If we are not careful some segments our own But Sue kept up her campaign for mandatory country of food industries will be wiped out”, she said at the time. origin labelling of food for nine more years in parliament and [Her gloomy warning is still relevant, but for different set up a wide ranging coalition for CoOL. reasons – land and water use.]
Sue believes consumers are now much more aware about where food comes from and about food safety issues, a momentum that began with the petition and the supermarkets’ voluntary introduction of CoOL for fresh fruit and vegetables in their stores. And the fact that New Zealand exporters are confident about their produce and want it to be labelled on overseas shelves.
“Horticulture New Zealand was pivotal to the whole thing too. They have been outstanding in their support and leadership around country of origin labelling and absolutely pivotal right from the start.”
Hort NZ was part of a CoOL coalition which included the Pork Industry Board.
Former Hort NZ chief executive Peter Silcock says Hort NZ became interested in CoOL around the time insults and accusations were being thrown around about whose veggies were from where. In particular the Australian industry accused New Zealand of being sneaky and sneaking foreign frozen peas across the Tasman.
“We saw that there should be some good rules around this.”
“Shoppers assumed that Wattie’s sold New Zealand only produce. But Wattie’s is owned globally now and it sources its produce from all over the place.”
“We could see that an educated consumer preferred to support local industry and trust the growing systems here, rather than those off-shore.”
He agrees with Sue that the “free trade argument” used to stop CoOL for years was never credible. “New Zealand has had compulsory country of original labelling for clothes and shoes for a long time.”
“Most developed countries have some sort of CoOL.”
Peter believes there’s a been a big shift in consumer awareness, and a change within New Zealand’s food industry, since CoOL first took its baby steps years ago.
“People are more aware about the issue of where their food comes from and we now have a confident food export industry aware and proud of its own place in the world, and it wants to be seen as different, labelled from New Zealand.”
“New Zealand is known for quality and innovation.”
Capitalising on the limelight, Hort NZ began a new movement via Facebook and other social media platforms, urging people to ask their local MP about what they were going to do about the re-newed call for CoOL. The feeds also provide a steady stream of information to an interested public, and encourages a lively debate.
The Facebook launch was a massive success reaching more than 1,700 people in its first week.