The complex journey of supermarket goods from paddock – and factory – to plate means making ethical decisions at the checkout can be a minefield.
But as consumers become more proactive in their search for food that is both good for them and kind on the environment and food sources, supermarkets have risen to the challenge and are providing more ethical options than ever.
Given the recent spate of berry-related hepatitis A cases in Australia, caused by poor hygiene and handling of the fruits in China, the quality and origin of our food sources has rarely been so topical.
Here’s how to make the world a better place and to stay healthy with your weekly shop.
1. Look for certification labels
The production of supermarket staples like coffee, tea, cocoa and fresh fruit grown in developing countries is fraught with human rights and environmental controversy.
“Coffee growers can be getting as little as 30 cents of what we pay for a $3 cup of coffee,” says Nick Ray, coordinator of the Ethical Consumer Group, which produces the ethical consumer guide Shop Ethical!.
“With Fairtrade certification they’re getting something in the range of $2 for the same amount of coffee.”
2. Go free-range
In Australia there is no official standard for free-range eggs or meat except that the general requirements under state-based animal welfare acts and codes must be met – which means the term is ripe for misuse by producers.
“Free-range eggs, for example, can often be a bit of a minefield in terms of there not being any requirements around the definition of free-range,” says Cassie Duncan, general manager at Sustainable Table. “If you see free-range or ‘free to roam’ it doesn’t all mean the same.”
The best option is to look for certification logos, like Humane Choice and Australian Certified Organic, and inform yourself about each scheme so you know how eggs or meat stamped with their logo have been produced.
3. Avoid companies with a negative record
Avoiding food produced by companies with a poor track record in ethical production is one of the best ways to spend your supermarket dollar. The Shop Ethical! guide (available online and as a smartphone app) rates a comprehensive list of supermarket products, including baked goods, pet food and liquor.
“We’ve pooled a whole lot of assessments and given them a weighting to allow people to look out for companies that have a significantly heavy track record and avoid them and choose those who have a positive track record,” says Mr Ray.
4. Choose organic
Just like with free-range, organic is a much-abused term as there is no domestic standard. Buying certified produce is the only way to ensure the brand’s organic credentials are up to scratch.
“If you just see the word organic and it doesn’t have a certification label, anyone can label things organic,” says Mr Ray.
Consumer association CHOICE recommends these domestic schemes: Australian Certified Organic, Bio-Dynamic Research Institute, National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, Organic Food Chain, Organic Growers of Australia, Safe Food Queensland and Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers Cooperative.
5. Select sustainable seafood
Since industrial fishing began in the 1950s, global fish stocks have been in decline as we’re catching fish far beyond nature’s ability to replenish the seas. Greenpeace says up to 90 per cent of large predatory fish – tuna, swordfish, marlin and shark – have been taken from our oceans.
The solution? Choose sustainable seafood. The Australian Marine Conservation Society has a comprehensive guide online or via a smartphone app.
Ms Duncan says price is also a helpful aid.
“The best thing about sustainable seafood is it’s often cheaper,” she says. “So if the fish is cheap to purchase and caught in Australia it often means it’s not as popular, which means it’s often the more sustainable choice.”
6. Cut back on processed foods
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet as it’s versatile, cheap and prolongs the shelf life of about half the packaged products on Australian supermarket shelves like biscuits, breakfast cereals, instant noodles, chocolate and ice cream.
But clearing land for oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia is a major contributor to climate change and has pushed many species to brink of extinction. And it’s tricky to make an ethical decision at the supermarket as regulations allow palm oil to be labelled simply as vegetable oil.
“Try to buy unpackaged whole foods, so anything without a label, to begin with and if it does have a label go for the shortest list of ingredients possible,” says Ms Duncan. “If you’re buying highly processed foods with lots of ingredients that’s when you can fall into the trap of buying uncertified products like palm oil without realising it.”
7. Buy seasonal Aussie produce
Purchasing in-season fruit and vegetables grown in Australia is a simple way to reduce your food miles. Produce labelled ‘grown in Australia’ means exactly that and Ms Duncan says having a seasonal produce guide handy is a great way to know when fruit and vegetables are in season.
“Often the best indicator is price,” she says. “If you’re buying berries outside of season you’re going to be paying a lot more.”