By Colin Packham
SYDNEY, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott backed plans on Thursday to introduce country-of-origin labelling in the wake of a hepatitis A outbreak, potentially risking contravention of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.
With 18 confirmed cases of hepatitis A linked to consumption of berries sold by Patties Foods Ltd, Abbott said he had asked members of his Cabinet to draft legislation by the end of March to provide greater transparency to consumers.
It marked a reversal of his previous position that such legislation would raise the cost of food.
Australia was among plaintiffs against the United States after it introduced its own stronger country-of-origin labelling laws for beef products last year.
The WTO ruled against the United States in October, arguing that country-of-origin labelling provided an incentive to favour domestic livestock.
Gerard McManus, a spokesman for Australia's agricultural minister, said Abbott had told the minister to ensure the proposed legislation did not fall foul of WTO legislation.
Abbott had previously been reluctant to support country-of-origin labelling, insisting it would make food more expensive.
However, he said on Thursday efforts would be made to ensure the impact would be as small as possible.
"We don't want to add needlessly to the burdens of business but we do want to ensure that consumers get the information that they need and the public is protected. So we will do it in the most business-friendly way," Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
The hepatitis A outbreak has been linked to poor hygiene and water supplies in a Chinese packaging plant.
Under current laws, the term "made from Australian and imported ingredients" is common, providing no details on the exact origins of all the ingredients in a product or where it was packaged.
Producers have increasingly sought to show their Australian credentials after a 2013 Roy Morgan poll showed more than 60 percent of Australians sometimes bought products because they were made in Australia even when they were more expensive than imported rivals.
Australia's largest food processor and packaging company SPC Ardmona, owned by Coca-Cola Amatil, began declaring on its labels that all tinned products were Australian grown and canned after it was forced to seek financial assistance. (Editing by Paul Tait)
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