Australians are in the dark about the origins of the seafood they’re eating, with 41 per cent unsure whether their seafood is local or imported.
The figure was revealed by a new study from the Australian Barramundi Farmers Association (ABFA). Led by Professor Meredith Lawley, University of Sunshine Coast Food Research Group, the research surveyed 2,000 participants and found many Australians were concerned about buying Australian fish.
When it comes to one of Australia’s most iconic species, barramundi, just over half of the respondents (50.4 per cent) said they would ask for Australian barramundi if they knew the majority (60 per cent) was imported.
“It’s compounded in the case of barramundi,” says Ken Chapman, vice president of the ABFA. “It’s an extremely popular fish with Australians, around a third of people nominate it in their top three preferred fish. People connect it with north Queensland and the Northern Territory. The idea it might be from somewhere else comes as a real surprise to people.”
Elsewhere, the species is called Asian seabass, but the Australian government mandates it be called barramundi when imported to Australia says Chapman, who also owns Coral Coast Barramundi.
While country of origin labelling regulations were tightened for retailers in July 2018, there is no regulation compelling the hospitality industry to include country of origin on menus. It’s a longstanding issue Seafood Industry Australia (SIA) is lobbying to change.
“This means that when you go out to dine, there is no obligation for businesses to label where the seafood you are about to order and eat comes from,” says SIA CEO Jane Lovell. “To give consumers the right of choice and seafood producers a fair go, the Australian Government needs to introduce legislation, so the foodservice sector has to label seafood with country of origin, just like seafood retailers do.”
Michael Milkovic and Michelle Grand-Milkovic of love.fish at Barangaroo in Sydney, say promoting provenance is an essential part of their business.
“It’s not about being anti-imported seafood, it’s more about the information needing to be there so consumers know,” says Grand-Milkovic. “We don’t want people purchasing barramundi at restaurants believing they’re supporting the Australian industry when they aren’t.”
The lack of transparency can result in wide-ranging ramifications.
“The rules in this country are incredibly tough,” says Chapman. “We don’t use antibiotics, we don’t use hormones, we don’t use growth promoters. We farm in a sustainable way, we harvest and ship rapidly.”
Australian barramundi often comes with a higher price tag compared to imported products. “The average consumer has been given an unrealistic expectation about what fish actually costs,” says Grand-Milkovic. “There will always be a market for someone to go and get $10 fish and chips, but it should be specified where it’s come from. [Then] when they come to restaurant that is supporting Australian farmers and fishermen, they understand why it is more expensive.”
The reputation of Australian barramundi could also be at risk.
“When people buy Australian barramundi, they expect it to be high quality,” says Chapman. “When they buy it and it’s not what they expect, that devalues all of us. If they go into a foodservice venue, assume it’s Australian and have a bad experience — that hurts everybody. It’s disheartening to not have authenticity.”