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An update from our CEO Alan Kirkland

Fare trade: The free rein on 'free range' may finally be coming to an end

Food manufacturers have had a pretty free run when it comes to marketing claims, but that seems to be changing.

In the past year, the government has introduced the Health Star Rating system, and better country-of-origin labelling is on the agenda.

Whenever we ask CHOICE members what issues you'd like us to focus on, food labelling is always at the top of the list. And that's not surprising. Besides the fact that food is essential, it's also where we spend most of our money, after housing costs. The average Australian household spends about 17% of its budget on food and beverages, and our Consumer Pulse surveys have consistently rated grocery bills as one of the top areas of concern for consumers.

However, consumers aren't just shopping for the cheapest food – they also care about what they're buying. Around three-quarters of CHOICE members say it's important to buy environmentally friendly products whenever they can, and many also care about the treatment of animals in farming.

Supermarkets and food manufacturers have picked up on this trend. We've seen an explosion of brands and marketing claims that tap into consumer concerns about the quality of food or farming practices. Beyond free range and organic, these now include nebulous terms like 'free to roam', 'natural' and 'sustainable', as Rachel Clemons' article on food claims outlines.

The problem is you can't always rely upon these claims. But this is the bit that seems to be changing. Governments and regulators are increasingly recognising that these claims are more than mere puffery. If they're misleading, they're against the law.

When the ACCC decided in 2014 to focus on 'credence claims' – claims about the special characteristics of products – it found clear examples of illegal behaviour in the food industry. When the ACCC took the culprits to court, the judges agreed.

These misleading or deceptive claims have a direct economic impact on consumers, as CHOICE's recent investigation of free-range eggs revealed: consumers pay nearly double for eggs labelled 'free range', and 213 million 'free-range eggs' sold in Australia last year failed to live up to consumer expectations of what this means. 

CHOICE has spoken to many genuine free range producers who are just as dismayed as consumers about the dodgy practices of large producers who label their products 'free range' when they really aren't.

Perhaps that's why we're finally seeing action, with consumer affairs ministers agreeing in June to develop an information standard under the Australian Consumer Law to provide certainty about what 'free range' means when it comes to eggs. 

Strong consumer protection laws are good for the economy, but only if businesses comply. This step will send a clear message to industry about the importance of telling the truth.

Alan Kirkland, CEO
Email: alan@choice.com.au
Twitter: @AlanKirkland