Navigating your way through the supermarket aisle can be challenging. There’s the wobbly wheel on the shopping trolley, the temptations in the confectionary aisle and the six types of plain yoghurt to choose from.
But matters just got more complicated following recent cases of major brands and retailers getting caught deceiving consumers.
The latest hiccup involved Coles being exposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for advertising bread as “Freshly Baked In-Store” and “Baked Today”, when in fact it had been made months earlier on the other side of the world.
Coles was slammed in the Federal Court and ordered to hang signs in its stores for three months telling customers of the deception.
Tom Godfrey, of consumer advocacy group Choice, welcomed the crackdown.
“It’s great that we’re getting some of these dodgy claims flushed out because consumers rely on supermarkets and you need them to be accurate,” Mr Godfrey says.
“Clearly it’s a long way off from what consumers expectations of fresh would be.”
Sadly, Coles is not alone in twisting the truth.
Other recent examples include one of Australia’s biggest egg producers, Pirovic Enterprises, being fined $300,000 for trying to pass off their product as free range. Maggie Beer was targeted for misleading terms on products which implied they were made in the Barossa Valley.
Consumers are right to be a little confused amid growing uncertainty over product claims and it serves as a good opportunity to brush up on the definition of some common packaging terms.
Country of origin
Food products sold in Australia are required to follow labelling standards under the Food Standards Code.
Some consumers might think that ‘Made in Australia’ means a 100 per cent true-blue product.
According to the ACCC, if ‘Made in Australia’ appears on a jar of jam, for example, all it means is that at least half the cost of making the product was incurred in Australia. It doesn’t mean the ingredients were grown or sourced in Australia.
However, the terms ‘Product of’ and ‘Grown in’ does refer to locally sourced goods.
If ‘Product of Australia’ appears on a packet of salmon then it was caught in our oceans and if ‘Grown in Australia’ appears on a Granny Smith in your lunch box, it was grown on home soil.
It is illegal under Australian Consumer Law to make false or misleading claims about where a product comes from.
“As consumers we need to question what’s being put in front of us in the supermarket,” Mr Godfrey says. “We know the industry always tries to push the boundaries.”
Anything that describes a product as organic is claiming the ingredients used were sourced from organic farming.
Products labelled as organic generally cost more than those that use artificial fertilisers, chemicals, or pesticides.
Businesses that make organic claims need to substantiate the statement under the voluntary Australian standard for growers and manufacturers in order to label their products ‘organic’ and biodynamic’.
The standard includes a framework for how to grow, produce, distribute, and label products, and aims to give consumers confidence that products follow natural farming practices without the use of pesticides and fertilisers.
Many products carry a symbol or logo to show that they’re certified organic, which means they have received a certification provided by various bodies and met the minimum standards.
Mr Godfrey recommends checking items are certified before you buy.
“If there’s no logo or mention of certification then there’s no guarantee it will meet standards of any kind,” Mr Godfrey warns.
“While many companies seek to confuse consumers by registering the word ‘organic’ as a trademark, the ACCC has recently cracked down on bottled water companies who used the term organic as part of a trademark by forcing them to change their brands.”
Check out Choice’s organic water analysis here
The word ‘fresh’ has been placed in the spotlight in light of the Coles bread fiasco and its interpretation can be tricky.
Mr Godfrey said consumers buying fresh should expect something newly made but often it’s not the case.
“While the use of words such as fresh, natural, and pure is popular and often associated with health halos, a legal definition can be hard to pin down,” he says.
“Much like dodgy organic claims, in a bid to confuse consumers, many companies have ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘pure’ as part of their registered trademarks.”
For example, in 2003 the Outback Juice Company was forced by the ACCC to admit sugar and preservatives were added to its products despite being promoted as ‘100% Fresh Orange Juice’.
“What we’ve seen time and time again from industry is that they serve up these claims that are largely fictitious,” Mr Godfrey says.
Mr Godfrey says the case against Pirovic Enterprises is a win for consumers as it will now lead to clarity on what the definition of free range means.
For the first time, a national definition will soon be implemented after Pirovic was fined for promoting its eggs as free range when their hens were housed in crowded barns.
“About 40 per cent of us buy free range eggs and we pay twice as much,” Mr Godfrey says. “They come with a massive mark-up and right now that mark-up isn’t justified.”
Premium or credence claims
Premium claims might suggest a product is of a higher quality and has added benefits or that it is more nutritional or better for the environment.
Claims that imply a certain product has a superior benefit when compared to similar products on the market can be made as long as they are not misleading and can be substantiated.
In 2012, Swisse vitamins came under fire for misleading consumers about the positive effects of its vitamin products without sufficient proof to make the claims.
Mr Godfrey urged consumers to continue to be savvy.
“It’s really important that when we look at packaging and some of the claims being made that we analyse those and determine for ourselves whether there’s any validity to them,” he says.