Free-range farce gets a reality check but ACCC must do more

Free-range farce gets a reality check but ACCC must do more

Column published in The Australian 'Life' section, Tuesday 22 September 2015.

Earlier this month, something remarkable happened in the food industry that many had been working towards for years.

It wasn’t an awards night or restaurant opening or cookbook launch, lovely though those events might be. Instead, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission took an important step in stemming the tide of oily untruths in food packaging. The ACCC brought three major pork retailers to heel for the misuse of the terms “free range”, “bred free range” and “bred outdoors”.

The brands Primo Smallgoods, KR Castlemaine and Otway Pork were taken to task for knowingly misusing these terms in their marketing.

At best, it was the sow, rather than the pigs raised and slaughtered, that had lived in any way akin to the impression these terms conveyed. At worst, for six years Primo Smallgoods had sold as “free range” products made with pigs from Denmark that lived in roofed or partially roofed housing with solid or partially slatted floors.

The rulings for these operators include court-enforceable restrictions on using these terms without demonstrable proof the pigs were raised outdoors in paddocks. The peak industry body, Australian Pork Limited, will change the title and logo of one of its pork production standards from the ambiguous “outdoor bred” to “outdoor bred, raised indoors on straw”. Catchy.

But the real benefit is the signal this sent to the food industry about duplicitous advertising. ACCC chairman Rod Sims said, “When claims such as ‘free range’ or ‘bred free range’ are misused, consumers may be misled into paying more for a product feature that doesn’t exist. Competitors are also harmed as legitimate free-range producers unfairly lose their competitive advantage. Innovation suffers when consumers and business lose trust in the integrity of claims.”

Sims emphasises the importance of packaging that accurately reflects the living conditions of the animals raised for meat products. “Marketing material must use words that consumers can understand, irrespective of whether the words have some special industry meaning.”

You’d be forgiven for wondering why something so obvious needs explaining. But as the retail value of terms such as “free range” rockets, so too does the temptation for marketers to make the claim even when it bears no relation to the truth. After all, well-meaning, time-poor consumers happily pay a premium for products with the right packaging.

The great free-range farce is not restricted to the pork industry. Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia is the independent accreditation program used by more than 100 chicken farms. Its meat chicken standard stipulates: “The stocking density in the shed must not exceed 28kg of live birds per square metre of floor space, unless there is mechanical ventilation where it should not exceed 30kg of live birds per square metre.”

The live weight of a 1.6kg meat chicken is about 2.2kg, which means that there are 13 to 14 FREPA chickens per square metre. This is better than conventional production but it’s still a long way from what most of us envisage when we hear the term free range.

The packaging for these products is similarly perplexing. The Lilydale free-range chicken label depicts a fluorescent green pasture entirely empty of chickens — or any other sign of life.

This is mystifying and unsettling — where are the chooks? Are they clucking contentedly just over that emerald rise or has a mutant virus knocked them all off? Distressingly, Hazeldene’s Willowton chickens seemingly have fallen victim to the same attack — the lurid green pasture on its packaging is similarly devoid of chickens.

Mind you, the Bannockburn branding featuring two chickens roaming an unidentified landscape as the light fades is equally disturbing. Are these the last two creatures left alive after some kind of apocalyptic event? What is the source of the purple gas that shrouds the landscape?

Thank goodness for Hazeldene’s “Chickens you can trust”. They are “pure, natural and farm fresh”. Pity, then, that the chickens under the Broad Oak brand (cue illustration of farmhouse, tractor and farmyard) are raised inside sheds with artificial lighting.

Presumably, it’s the gap between market perception and truth that prevents these brands from depicting actual FREPA farms on their packaging. The pork ruling is welcome but there is clearly plenty more work left for the ACCC. In the meantime, don’t judge a chook by its cover.

Mrs Feather

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