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Simplot Australia caught mislabelling imported fish as local product

Deep-fried fish
Deep-fried fish (Representative file image; not a Simplot product).
Deep-fried fish
Deep-fried fish (Representative file image; not a Simplot product).

Simplot Australia has agreed to change its packaging after an ACCC probe caught the company labelling imported fish as ‘Made in Australia’.

Simplot, a wholly-owned subsidiary of US-based JR Simplot, has been marketing 31 frozen fish products in Australia under the brands Birds Eye, I&J, Neptune, and an unidentified house brand, all labelled ‘Made in Australia’. Those products will from this month be labelled ‘Packed in Australia’.

Under the Australian Consumer Law Country of Origin labelling provisions, if food such as fish is packed in Australia without being substantially transformed, it cannot display a ‘Made in Australia’ mark.

After conducting compliance checks across a range of frozen foods, the ACCC became concerned that Simplot was not substantially transforming imported frozen fish packed in Australia, thus failing to comply with Country of Origin regulations. The fish concerned came from various countries, including New Zealand, the US and South Africa. 

Simplot had argued that slicing, crumbing and par-frying of the frozen fish constituted substantial transformation, permitting it to use the Made in Australia claim. The ACCC disagreed.

“Processes that only change the form or appearance of imported ingredients or components no longer qualify as substantial transformation,” said ACCC deputy chair Mick Keogh.

“Country of origin labels are designed to inform consumers, some of whom may be willing to pay a premium for products they think are made in a particular country, especially Australia.

“Not only can incorrect labelling wrongly influence consumers into purchasing a certain product, it can also give a competitive advantage to those who use the ‘Made in Australia’ label in breach of the Australian Consumer Law.”

Keogh said that due to Simplot’s cooperation during the investigation and its agreement to change the labels, the ACCC decided not to take enforcement action. 

Frozen fish products made by Simplot packaged after October 31 will carry the new labels, however some mislabelled products may remain on sale in supermarkets until stock runs out.  

Simplot Australia said in a statement that it “prides itself on operating transparently and with the highest level of integrity” and that it fully complies with the mandatory labelling regulations and country of origin food labelling requirements. The company explained that it processes fish at its Kelso, NSW, manufacturing plant and because suitable fresh fish is not available off the NSW coastline it imports supplies from sustainable sources.

“Through discussion with ACCC, it was concluded that Simplot’s interpretation of the technical definition and the amount of processing being undertaken at our Kelso plant did not constitute it being labelled as ‘Made in Australia’.

Footnote: The Australian Government passed the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Country of Origin) Act 2017 in February of that year, amending the definition of ‘substantial transformation’. Under the definition goods are substantially transformed in a country if:

  • They were ‘grown’ or ‘produced’ in that country, or
  • As a result of one or more processes undertaken in that country, the goods are fundamentally different in identity, nature or essential character from all of their imported ingredients or components.

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