Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Food Labelling Review calls for agreed 'free range' standards

The Food Labelling Law and Policy Review, headed by Dr Neil Blewett  called for submissions in October 2009 to identify issues that the public would like to be considered as part of the Review, and people were asked to provide data, evidence and/or documentation to support their views.

The Results of the Review have just been published.

The desire to make food purchasing decisions based on ethical convictions and personal values by consumers has brought another dimension to the food labelling debate. The Review Panel recognised that consumers feel strongly about the origins of their food from the huge number of submissions that were received.

Consumer values issues such as animal welfare and the environment were raised in a large number of submissions. Issues such as free range and organic were categorized by the panel as specific consumer value issues. The very narrowness of these claims means that they lend themselves more easily to precise and agreed definitions.

The Panel has taken the view that where specific values issues are concerned, it may be advantageous to develop a prescriptive definitional framework to ensure a level playing field. However, self-regulatory measures may need to be introduced or escalated to ensure that the consumer is provided with consistent and accurate information and not polished positive claims made by unscrupulous suppliers and producers.

A range of regulatory mechanisms, in particular of the self- regulatory kind, can cater to the nature of the values issues and structures of the markets. These include voluntary codes of practice, certification, agreed standards or mandated requirements. All have differing levels of consumer acceptance. Governance conditions, compliance levels and effective enforcement also differ with each.

Voluntary Codes of Practice arise mainly though industry agreement but this will only work if there is a unified industry view. If adoption and compliance is variable it could undermine consumer confidence in voluntary codes.

Another option is Certification. Certification schemes involve the use of a values claim eg. Pasture raised, linked to an accreditation program. This is a particularly useful way of tackling generalised value issues. Certification can provide certain marketing advantages, but consumer confidence will depend on their trust in the endorsing organisation and its capacity to monitor and enforce the claims processes. The use, and misuse, of certification schemes is governed by existing consumer protection laws in terms of ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions. Their use is supported by litigation, if appropriate, where a trade-marks or claims are used contrary to, or in absence of a contract between the certifying body and the supplier.

A further method is setting an agreed standard to provide clarity for definitions where there has often been multiple definitions and consumer confusion. The approach is particularly relevant to specific values issues. (such as free range.) An agreed standard is based on extensive stakeholder consultation and has the advantage of being able to be called up in regulations or legislation.

In situations where the market is not capable of effective self-regulation, government intervention will be required to incorporate mandatory requirements within the code or in appropriate consumer protection legislation to ensure adoption and enforcement of clearly defined claims.

The Panel has made the following recommendations:
No. 36:
That Food Standards Australia New Zealand consider adopting, by reference in the Food Standards Code, values-based definitions and/or standards relating to specific food production methods and processes, if requested by industry, to achieve consistency of definitions.
No. 37:
That the relevant livestock industries consider the benefits of establishing agreed standards under the auspices of Standards Australia or Standards New Zealand for terms related to animal husbandry (e.g. ‘free range’, ‘barn laid’ and ‘caged’ in the case of poultry).

Hopefully the Australian Egg Corporation will take some notice of this report before it tries to implement its proposed standard.

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