The loophole in Australian seafood labelling laws means that the food service industry (restaurants, cafes etc.) is exempt from country of origin labelling.
Last month I shared with you, dear reader, the launch of a new website called Seasonality – a site which will help us all to make sure we are eating the very best of the great seasonal and sustainable fish species that we can find here in Australia. As the weather warms up and we head into summer (at last), for many of us our gastronomic fancy turns to thoughts of fish. As it becomes more of a feature on our plates, both at home and when we eat out, I know many of you are like me and want to know where your fish has come from.
In Australia all seafood sold fresh in fishmongers and supermarkets must be labelled with it’s country of origin, but not much else in the way of information is legally required – and in this respect our labelling laws fail us. In the EU fish is legally required to be labelled with the origin, species and method used to catch or farm it, a wealth of information not available to us. But that’s not the least of our labelling issues.
While fresh seafood is at least required to have the country of origin clearly displayed, even this meagre prerequisite is avoided by Australian restaurants and the food service sector who have no legal responsibility to display any provenance information about the seafood they offer. A bill introduced by Senators Nick Xenophon and Peter Whish-Wilson and recommended by a Senate Committee inquiring into seafood labelling to change this loophole in the labelling laws failed when the two major parties joined forces to reject it in August of this year.
It has become increasingly clear that Australian consumers prefer locally produced seafood. Further, there is strong evidence of a consumer perception that seafood sold in Australia is locally produced. However, this is most definitely NOT the case and most of us are being mislead about the fish we order when eating out. In fact, more than 70% of the seafood consumed in Australia is actually imported.
What does this mean for you, the consumer? Well, it means that seven times out of ten, the gorgeous, local fish that you think you are eating has been cheaply imported – usually from fish farms whose practices do not meet our own fish farming requirements or caught using methods whose sustainability is questionable.
And these ‘fishy’ seafood meals are not restricted to city restaurants. Just because you are eating a big plate of whiting or garfish in a region renowned for producing those species does not mean that’s what you have been served. For example, I’ve been reliably informed that it is becoming difficult to get a feed of local fish from the hotel dining rooms on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, a region well known for the quality of garfish found there, where recently a group of local garfish fishermen were served an imported substitute called ‘Chinese Garfish’. This is a fish whose species and provenance are unknown by the local fishing industry.
So – what can you do about this? Write to your local federal member and demand that they stand up for more comprehensive and transparent seafood labelling in all retail outlets. It appears that any attempts at introducing voluntary labelling in retail outlets has failed so it’s going to take legislation to change things.
And, more importantly, make your money talk. Make a point of always asking where any unspecified seafood is from when you see it on a hotel or restaurant menu and in fish and chip shops. Request the local product and make some noise about it – make chefs and restaurant owners accountable for their choices. After all, we all know that it’s the squeaky wheel which gets the oil.