Credible, or crock?
Have you ever chosen one product over another because of its premium credentials? Free-range eggs rather than cage eggs, for example? Or the apples in the organic section, the can of tuna with the dolphin logo, the olive oil that's labelled extra virgin, the Fairtrade coffee beans or that delicious beef from King Island, perhaps?
Credence claims give the impression that a product offers a premium attribute – some kind of unique selling point –when compared with similar products. These claims might suggest that a product has particular qualities derived from its place of origin, or that it has certain ethical, social, environmental or nutritional credentials – and we're often prepared to pay a premium for them.
The problem is that it can be difficult to check their validity, so you're often taking them on faith. For some, there's no agreed definition or official standard the product must comply with. And many credence claims can be misleading.
Credence claims crackdown
In 2014, credence claims were earmarked as a priority area for the ACCC. The ACCC chair, Rod Sims, said at the time, "Consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions that value the types of claims that directly affect the integrity of the product, such as where or how something was made, grown or produced".
"Consumers must be able to trust that products match descriptions so they can make informed purchasing decisions. Misleading credence claims can also undermine the level playing field and disadvantage other suppliers," he added.
And the ACCC certainly had its work cut out for it. In 2013–14 it received 793 complaints or enquiries relating to the false representation of foods – including their standard, quality, value, grade, composition and style.
We look at some of the most common types of credence claims – what they mean, how to check if they're authentic and when they can be misleading.
These claims imply an association between the product and a particular geographical place, region or country. It may be a specific location with a reputation for producing a particular high quality ingredient. Why buy plain old vanilla ice-cream or salted caramel when you can buy Madagascan vanilla bean ice-cream or Murray River salted caramel? Or the claim may be of a more generic variety – 'locally grown produce', for example, or 'made in Australia'.
Country of origin labelling is a mandatory requirement of the food standards code, so in theory you should be able to check the country of origin statement to see that said vanilla bean is indeed from Madagascar. But the recent frozen berry fiasco helped to highlight the need for significant improvement in country of origin labelling. And unfortunately, you can't always trust what you read on the label.
For example, in late 2014 a food importer paid a $10,200 penalty after the ACCC pulled it up for selling a product called Hi Honey with a map of Australia on its label, when the product was largely composed of plant sugars produced in Turkey.
Earlier that year Carlton & United Breweries had to fork out $20,400 for implying that Byron Bay Pale Lager, whose labels displayed a map of the region including the location of the Byron Bay Brewing Company, was brewed by a small local brewer, when it was actually produced 630km away in Warnervale.
And in 2012 a Victorian butcher was taken to court and fined $50,000 for claiming the meat it sold was sourced from King Island, a location with a reputation for producing premium beef.
Production method claims
Organic and biodynamic
Organic food is grown and produced without the use of synthetic chemicals (such as pesticides or artificial fertilisers) and is free from genetically modified components and exposure to food irradiation. Animal welfare is addressed – the chickens are free range and cows aren't kept in feed lots, for example, and animals aren't fed growth-regulating drugs, steroids, hormones or antibiotics. Biodynamic farming incorporates these principles, with additional emphasis on soil health.
Because of the higher costs associated with organic and biodynamic farming, the resulting produce attracts a price premium, and manufacturers have been known to use this to their advantage. In 2013 seven bottled-water suppliers were ordered by the ACCC to remove misleading 'organic' claims from their products (water can't be organic, according to organic standards).
To avoid buying phony organic produce, check the label for the logo of one of the six Department of Agriculture-approved certifying organisations, the details of which can be found on its website.
When you think of free-range animals, chances are you imagine happy cows, pigs and chickens roaming around on open pastures. But sadly because of a lack of production and labelling standards in Australia, buying 'free-range' meat doesn't always mean animals are treated any better than their factory-farmed friends.
A number of free-range accreditation schemes exist, but accreditation is voluntary and the schemes' standards vary widely. You pay a premium for the 'free range' label, but frequently the product isn't even certified so there's no guarantee you're getting what you paid for.
When it comes to free-range eggs, for example, stocking densities of layer hens (number of hens per hectare) can range from 1500 or less to as many as 10,000 and the difference in premium charged for the 'free range' label doesn't necessarily reflect this.
The ACCC recently brought proceedings against a NSW producer for promoting its eggs as 'free range' when in fact stocking densities were high and the hens had restricted access to the outdoors. It was fined $300,000 by the federal court.
CHOICE is currently campaigning for a national enforceable standard for free-range eggs that would give consumers confidence and provide an even playing field for producers.
'Free to roam', 'range-reared', 'open range'
These claims also appear on labels for poultry and eggs, but with no standard definitions they're little more than marketing terms with the potential to be misleading if used inappropriately.
In 2013 two suppliers of Steggles-brand chicken had to fork out $400,000 in fines after the ACCC took them to court over advertising that their meat chickens were "free to roam in large barns". In fact, for most of their lives the chickens were so densely packed in they were barely able to move around at will – hardly a reasonable person's interpretation of "free to roam".
Pasture- or grass-fed claims indicate that the animal has been fed on pasture (grass) or crops rather than grains. Among other things the industry standard requires that certified pasture-fed cattle have access to graze open pasture their whole life and aren't subjected to intensive feeding.
Grain-fed claims for meat indicate the animal has been fed on grain in a feedlot. The industry standard requires cattle to remain in a registered feedlot for a minimum of 70 days in order to be sold on the domestic Australian market as "certified grain fed".
Sustainable/ethical sourcing claims
According to Fairtrade, its system "is about better prices, working conditions, local sustainability and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world". Certified farmers must meet stringent standards, and every step of the supply chain is independently audited – from farmers, workers and traders in the country of origin, to the traders and licensees who buy the products (which include bananas, chocolate, coffee sugar and tea).
The original Fairtrade Mark on a single-ingredient product (for example, coffee beans) means that 100% of the product meets Fairtrade standards (and with composite products it means that every ingredient that can be sourced under the program is 100% Fairtrade). But under its new Fairtrade Sourcing Programs for cocoa, sugar and cotton, each of which has different logo,only a limited percentage of these ingredients or materials in a product may be Fairtrade certified, so recognising and understanding the different logos is important. For more information see our Fairtrade certification investigation.
Dolphin friendly, drift-net free
These claims are regularly found on the labels of canned tuna, but neither is particularly helpful for Aussie consumers trying to choose a more sustainable product. In the Western Central Pacific, where tuna for the Australian market is predominantly sourced, dolphins tend not to be caught in tuna nets because they don't associate with schooling tuna. And the term 'drift-net free' is misleading, as drift netting was banned by the United Nations in 1991.
'Pole-and-line caught', on the other hand, is a claim worth looking out for. This fishing method, by which fish are caught with a single pole, line and hook, is considered the best way to reduce overfishing and bycatch. Alternatively you can look for products displaying the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel. The MSC certifies sustainable fisheries and has a certified supply chain from the fishing boat right through to the point of sale.
Certified sustainable palm oil
With all the bad press surrounding palm oil, its high saturated fat content and the impact its farming has had on the environment, many manufacturers don't declare its presence – even when it's sustainably sourced – as they're not currently required to by law.
If palm oil does appear in the ingredients list, you can check its sustainability credentials by looking for the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) trademark which guarantees the oil is 100% certified sustainable. Just be mindful that the RSPO certifies a range of palm oil supply options which vary in their degree of sustainability, and check what's written in the trademark's smallprint.
Special dietary requirements claims
Products claiming to be gluten-free must not contain detectable gluten, oats (and their products), or cereals containing gluten that have been malted (and their products), according to the Food Standards Code. Similarly products claiming to be 'lactose free' must contain no detectable lactose.
Gluten-free claims are a valuable shopping tool for people with coeliac disease, for whom avoiding gluten is non-negotiable, and the legally binding standard behind the claims mean you should be able to trust them. But the growing trend of people choosing gluten-free for lifestyle reasons has meant the claims are sometimes a result of opportunistic marketing. Our 2014 investigation found that gluten free claims can appear on products that are naturally gluten free, such as rice – and come with a higher price tag.
Vegan products don't contain animal products or by-products, and haven't been tested on animals. There are no vegan certification schemes in Australia, however, so your best chance of getting a product that's authentically vegan is to look for the certification trademark of UK's The Vegan Society or US group Vegan Action's certified vegan logo – bearing in mind that the standards for both groups do vary.
Halal certification is of particular importance to observant Muslims wanting to buy food and drink that's halal ('acceptable' or 'permissible') under Islamic law. For a product to be endorsed by an Islamic certifying authority and carry the halal certification logo it must, amongst other things, be free from pig meat, produced using utensils and equipment uncontaminated by alcohol products, and animals must be slaughtered according to Islamic principles. There are a number of Islamic certifying bodies in Australia that certify domestic halal foods. Those approved by the government's Department of Agriculture to certify red halal meat and red meat products for export are listed on its website.
Kosher describes what is 'fit and proper' for people of the Jewish faith to consume. Kosher food laws set out the foods and beverages that are acceptable to eat and drink, and prescribe the way they must be prepared – animals must be slaughtered in a particular way under the supervision of a Rabbi, for example.
There are a number of Kosher certifying bodies in Australia, including Kosher Australia and The Kashrut Authority – just look for the logos.
Product quality claims
Extra virgin olive oil is mechanically extracted from top-quality olives, isn't adulterated or refined, and is the highest grade of olive oils you can purchase. The Australian Standard for olive oil defines what constitutes 'extra virgin', and testing methods, and an Australian Extra Virgin certification logo on the bottle indicates that the oil inside meets its requirements. But the standard is only voluntary, and not all extra virgin labels can be relied upon.
When we last tested olive oils in 2010 about half of the products tested didn't meet international standards for extra virgin. And in 2012 one company paid $13,200 in infringement notices for labelling its Oz Olio products as 'extra virgin olive oil' when ACCC tests revealed they didn't meet the standard.
Fresh, natural, pure, real
There's no standard definition for claims like 'fresh' and 'natural' on food products, though the ACCC has some guidelines for their use.
According to the these, 'natural' claims may suggest that a product is superior because it has certain 'natural' characteristics as opposed to being processed or made from artificial, man-made ingredients. 'Fresh' claims imply that food hasn't been frozen or preserved, and is sold close to the state it would be in at the time of picking, catching or producing. These types of claims are frequently used in trademarked brand names. And sometimes they can be misleading.
In May this year, The Real Juice Company and its supplier, Supabarn, each paid penalties totalling $20,400 for false and misleading labelling. An apple juice product was marketed as being "produced locally using the freshest quality apples" and "straight from a farm", when it was made from reconstituted apple juice concentrate imported from China. And a cranberry juice product labelled with the phrase, "So if you like your juice fresh with nothing else added" and "No added sugar; No artificial flavours; No artificial colours; No preservatives", contained added sugar and other additives.
And earlier this year, Coles was fined $2.5 million for promoting its bread products as 'Baked Today, Sold Today' and 'Freshly Baked In-Store' – when in fact they were par-baked and frozen as far away as Ireland then shipped to Australia and finished off in-store months later. The court determined that Coles had used the fresh baked claims to improve its market share in relation to smaller businesses genuinely offering a differentiated product.
Shame the claim
If you've seen a dodgy credence claim on a food product you can direct your complaint to the relevant food standards enforcement body in the state or territory where the food was produced.
A senate inquiry was launched in May to investigate food certification schemes in Australia. It will look at labelling requirements, certification processes and fees paid by food producers and whether the schemes provide enough information for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. We'll be keeping a keen eye on its progress, and will report on its findings when complete.