Sqauwk! Go the liars. Can you believe what they tell you you’re eating?

Here’s a challenge; how do you know your free range eggs are actually free range? Well, you just kinda accept what it says on the packaging, right?

Putting right aide the whole question of whether free range is necessarily better for your health (and some pesky Swedes have questioned the safety of said eggs having discovered that, if farmers aren’t extremely careful, bacterial infections like E. coli can run rampant through free-range chicken flocks), at least consumers need to be confident that an egg that calls itself free range really is free range.

In the UK, for example, you’d probably feel pretty confident since eggs are printed with decriptors: organic, cage-free, barn, or caged status, as well as their country of origin and Farm ID.

And to make sure you know what you’re eating, there’s a guide on the packaging

Crikey, that’s all a bit full-on, aren’t we bombarded with enough information already, do we really need all this data wherever we go? And doesn’t this impost make the eggs more expensive, after all it’s we who pay for that printing. Can’t we trust the organic egg farmers to do the right thing and all just relax a little?

Erm, nope. Oddly enough sometimes the same people that farm eggs like this (below) are also liars. Western Australian wholesalers C.I. & Co Pty Ltd, and Antonio Pisano and Anna Pisano have been found to have misled the public by labelling and selling cartons of eggs labelled ‘free range’ when a substantial proportion of the eggs were not free range….and it cost them $50,000 in fines (despite the maximum available fine of $220,000). Why did they lie in the first place? Cage eggs are still the nation’s biggest seller, but market share has slumped to 63.6 per cent. This compares with 75.2 per cent five years ago, and down from 68 per cent a year ago. By the end of the year, Woolworths will have slashed the number of cage egg brands it sells from 20 to 11, including dropping one of its own that makes up 5 per cent of sales. In his judgment Justice North found that: “the conduct involved a high level of dishonesty.  The conduct was also extremely difficult to detect because, once the eggs were placed in the cartons, it was impossible to determine whether they were free range or not.

The ACCC which persued the case said” “These proceedings should act as a warning to the Australian egg industry that the ACCC views egg substitution as a serious matter and will take strong enforcement action to stop similar conduct.”

Not strong enough however to impose UK standards of labelling. Which raises an interesting issue – what level of information is required, does a greater amount of information   result in more ethical practices or does it just force the liars to lie more, and who has the means to discover, investigate and prosecute offenders anyway.

Food labelling has been a topic of debate in Austraia for 20 years, and because big health, consumer, agricultural and FMCG lobbies all have major stakes in the issues and implications of possible regulations and because State regulation is inevitably required fo any change to effect, things move VERY slowly. (Here’s a  bit of classic government process and language published by a food labelling review committee).

Meanwhile at the coal face of the market nothing much changes: caveat emptor. Managing the accurate and complete labelling of foodstuffs is an industry in itself, and that’s to say nothing about non-food products. It’s a jungle out there, and if we ever thought we could leave such things to the honest and ethical practices of product marketers, LOOK OUT…

Back in 2006, a survey of 70 packaged products conducted for the NSW Food Authority was widely reported to have found that mandatory nutrition information that appears on all processed foods in Australia is often inaccurate and misleading. Even allowing for a 20 per cent margin of error on the specified amount, as many as 84 per cent of labels incorrectly stated the quantity of at least one component. Interestingly, the minute the survey results were published, the NSW government ran away at a million miles an hour, saying  that the survey was simply a pilot for a “wider national process on nutritional labelling to be conducted by Food Standards Australia“. On their website I can find no evidence of any such “wide process” however, Australian food labelling law and policy has indeed recently undergone a review, the  final report of which, called Labelling Logic. was presented to Government on January 2011 this year, a mere 5 years after the pilot.  The Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council has suggested that a realistic timeframe to expect a response is December 2011. Meanwhile critics of the report are already lining up and, possibly losing patience with the process, in the meantime the Heart Foundation conducted its own research into Private Label food products

As Elizabeth Farrelly wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald “We’re used to corporates v the community. We know that developers, miners and bankers are not on ”our” side. But food is different. It’s intimate. And the thought that our food producers – our cheery-faced farmers and bakers – would happily experiment with our well-being is still alarming.”

So will we ever get adequate labelling or must we rely on faith and judicial controls – the chicken and egg story. Product labelling is an area which has got me riled and about which I’ll be adding a few posts.

2 Responses to “Sqauwk! Go the liars. Can you believe what they tell you you’re eating?”

  1. Here in America, in order to label chicken or eggs ad “free range” the only things that are required is that their is a door leading outside the chicken barns, to a little tiny grassy area. Most of the times the chickens don’t actually know the door is there, and the farmers usually pray to God that the chickens never find the door, for fear of the chickens getting sick, due to their lack of immune systems from being raised indoors.

    The Green Guerilla

  2. I read that when researching this post, in fact there’s quite a lot of controversy about the definition of free range in the US. From Wkipedia: Consumers of free-range eggs want eggs from hens that are kept under traditional low-density, free-range conditions. Critics of EU-style free-range regulations point out that commercial free-range egg farming, in general, does not live up to these consumer requirements, since the regulations allow the use of yarding rather than free range. Yarding combines a high-density poultry house with an attached fenced yard, and both its methods and results are closer to high-density confinement than true free range. If you’re interested this is worth reading but the bottom line is that it’s best to keep your own chickens!! Can’t do that where i live, sadly. http://permaculture.greenphoenix.asia/index.php/animals/34-chickens/46-free-range-eggs

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