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Calls for clearer international beer labelling

Calls for clearer international beer labelling

Media outlets including The Conversation, News Corp and the ABC are calling for clearer labelling on international beer brands.

ABC News has published the headline: "With many 'foreign' beers now brewed in Australia, is it time for clearer labels?"

My Shout columnist Simon Irwin has focussed on international brands brewed locally under licence and asked if "it is made using Australian water, Australian hops, Australian malt and Australian yeast - is it really a foreign beer at all?"

"Should we be paying about a 30% premium on the cost of a domestic beer when they both come out of the same factory in Victoria?" he questions.

Meanwhile, Dan Jerker B. Svantesson, co-director at the centre for commercial law at Bond University, campaigns at The Conversation for "clearer labelling - such as a prominent standardised sticker - indicating when beer is brewed under license."

According Svantesson “when you buy beer in a shop, you can theoretically see where it has been brewed. But this is not always clear, and is often overwhelmed by branding."

“The problem is worse when it comes to ordering beers at a restaurant or pub,” he says.

Svanesson argues that beers such as Peroni, Heineken and Carlsberg can be listed as “imported beers” even when they are brewed in Australia.

He gave an example of Asahi beer featuring the text "Japan’s No. 1 Beer" prominently on the box,  which lead him to believe the beer was brewed in Japan. However, once the box had been opened by Svantesson, the fine print on the bottles revealed that the beer was brewed in Thailand under licence from Asahi. He argues that while the beer was imported as written, it wasn’t from the place he expected: Japan.

Working within a commercial law department, Svantesson researched the laws regarding this type of misleading labelling, discovering that Section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law states that a “person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive”, among other sections stating similar things.

Svantesson has since lodged a complaint to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Why does it matter?

Svantesson believes that even though foreign beer brands that have their products brewed in Australia take sufficient steps to make their beer taste similar enough to the original product, the place of origin still matters, “even if it tastes the same.”

“If you buy an expensive Swiss watch, surely it matters that it was made in Switzerland and not in China. Can’t we feel the same about beer?” Svantesson argues.

He is now campaigning for a clearer Country of Origin Food Labelling Information Standard, similar to that applied to food. 

Similar cases dismissed in the US

There have been similar complaints in the US about companies moving production of foreign beer brands to domestic breweries, but they have generally been unsuccessful. 

One involved the labelling and advertising of Fosters, which began exporting to the US in 1972, but has been brewed in Texas since 2012. The key elements of the marketing campaign were its brand slogan, “Foster's: Australian for Beer,” the “How to Speak Australian” TV ads using Australian accents and scenery, and its website noting the benefits of Australian hops and other references to Australian culture. The packaging contains multiple references to Australian culture and symbols, including an image of a red kangaroo, and the Southern Cross.

While the plaintiffs claimed that Fosters' overall marketing campaign misled consumers to believe that Fosters was brewed in Australia, MillerCoors responded that none of the symbols or advertising amounted to any express claim that the beer was brewed in or imported from Australia and that each Foster's Beer can included a disclaimer as to the place of production. The court agreed and rejected the plaintiffs’ argument.

Another case involved the Japanese brand Sapporo, which was brewed and imported from Canada. The plaintiffs sued under New York's consumer protection and false advertising laws. Sapporo countered that the Japanese imagery and North Star symbol were merely a tribute to the history and heritage of the company, that none of the labels included the word “Japan,” and that each label disclosed that the brand was brewed in Canada. The court dismissed that complaint too.