What’s in a label?
Consumers are often unaware that many of the animal products for sale in Australia are sourced from factory farms.1
Within these farms, millions of animals are raised in intensive production systems, regularly subjected to cruel treatment and conditions.2 As this treatment is largely hidden from public view, most consumers do not have a true understanding of how their grocery items are produced.3
In Australia, consumers may be misled by the fact that labelling legislation does not require producers to disclose information about farm production methods, such as the use of sow stalls.4
Further, there are a number of terms currently used to differentiate the source of animal products. Taking eggs, for example, just some of the advertising terms often used include caged, battery, barn-laid, free-range, open-range, range, grain-fed, free-to-roam, bred free-range, organic and biodynamic. Most of these commonly accepted terms are not defined in nationally consistent legislation, which means there is broad scope for consumer uncertainty as to their true meaning.
Traditionally, packaging uses positive imagery and ambiguous terms like ‘farm fresh’ or ‘grown nature’s way’ to describe animal-derived food products. In this way, producers shield consumers from the realities of intensive farming practices.5 Low welfare producers may even profit from the willingness of consumers to pay more for products which appear to adhere to higher welfare standards but are, in fact, untruthfully labelled.6
If an Australian animal-derived product does not clearly state its production method there is a strong likelihood that it has been sourced from factory farmed animals who have been confined indoors and subjected to painful farming practices for the majority of their life.
Changing consumer attitudes
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the realities of factory farming in the production of meat, dairy and egg products in Australia.8
Increasing numbers of consumers are willing to pay more for higher welfare products at the checkout,9 or are cutting out animal-derived food products altogether.10
This consumer sentiment coincides with a rise in legal proceedings against producers for using ambiguously worded food labels to mislead and deceive consumers about the origin of their food and the production methods used.
The federal consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has responded strongly to incidents of industry misconduct in recent years. The ACCC has prosecuted several Australian producers under consumer protection legislation for misleading consumers about the animal welfare claims used on their marketing material, including the use of terms like ‘free range’, ‘free to roam’ and ‘grown nature’s way’.11
Consumers are increasingly calling for reforms to enable them to more easily make informed food choices.13 Inherent in this call is the demand for truth in food labelling legislation.
Introducing consistent labelling legislation
To date, Australian producers have responded to changing consumer sentiment by eagerly embracing third party certification programs promising ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ standards, as well as a number of industry accreditation schemes. In the absence of a legislative regime for labelling animal–derived food products, however, these programs provide limited assurance to consumers who may be misled by feel-good marketing imagery, inconsistent and vague welfare standards, and labels that imply high animal welfare standards.
Voiceless believes a nationally consistent approach to labelling legislation is the best approach for honest welfare labelling and consumer choice, including:
- a mandatory labelling regime for all animal products clearly indicating the farm production method;
- a uniform set of defined terms of farm production methods that are linked to uniform animal protection standards;
- a regulatory monitoring and enforcement system (through consumer protection legislation) that ensures compliance with labelling laws;
- an extensive public education campaign to assist consumers in understanding the various production standards and systems and the descriptions on the labels;
- a ‘traffic light’ labelling system that differentiates between low, medium and high levels of animal welfare, also linked to the animal protection standards; and
- the placement of photos or images of animals on the products that reflect the animal production system used.
Effective, enforceable and nationally consistent truth in labelling legislation is the only way that consumers can make truly informed choices.
- Find out more about factory farming issues by exploring our other Hot Topics.
- Listen to an interview with Sarah Margo, discussing whether free-range standards are sufficient.
Last updated October 2018
- 1. For example, a 2006 national survey found that participants had a ‘shallow understanding’ of animal welfare issues and they were ‘keen to know more and were looking for reassurance of what animals may experience during, for example, slaughter’: TNS Social Research Consultants (2006) Attitudes Toward Animal Welfare, Canberra, July, Section 3.2 <http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/146748/tns_aw_research.pdf>. A 2009 Queensland survey found that the majority of respondents rated their knowledge of animal-based food production as ‘none’ or ‘limited’: Taylor, N and Signal, T (2009) ‘Willingness to Pay: Australian Consumers and “On the Farm” Welfare’, 12 JAAWS 345, p 353.
- 2. For an overview of the many welfare concerns and legalised cruelty inherent in factory farming, view our issues pages at Voiceless, the animal protection institute (Voiceless), ‘The issues we work on’, <https://voiceless.org.au/animal-law/past-submissions/>.
- 3. For an overview of factory farming, view our issues page at Voiceless, ‘Factory Farming’ <https://voiceless.org.au/hot-topic/factory-farming/>.
- 4. Current laws require certain information about animal-derived food products to be disclosed on product labels. For example, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, Standard 1.2.2 requires the name of the food, the lot identification and the name and address of the supplier to be displayed on the packaging, while Standard 1.2.5 requires that packaged food be date marked).However, mandatory egg labelling legislation has been implemented in the ACT with the Eggs (Labelling and Sale) Act 2001, which clearly differentiates between “cage”, “barn”, “aviary” and “free range” eggs and makes it unlawful for producers to sell eggs without labelling their products in accordance with these defined terms. The legislation also makes it an offence for producers to incorrectly label their products. These identifying terms must be “conspicuously displayed” on the packaging (Section 5(c)). Also, cage, barn and free range eggs that are sold in a retail context must all be separated out into different sections of shelf space, and have signage naming the production method and describing the method using a prescribed definition (Section 7-7B).South Australia is currently considering submissions on a voluntary accreditation scheme for free range egg producers. Under the scheme, accredited producers would label their eggs with a free range trade mark registered by the South Australian government. Producers adhering to the scheme must meet proscribed standards, however, the draft rules and standards released by the South Australian government included very few welfare standards and no stocking density for the chickens’ housing. See Voiceless’ 2015 and 2013 submissions to the South Australian government at <https://voiceless.org.au/animal-law/past-submissions/>.In 2011, the NSW Greens introduced the Truth in Labelling (Free-range Eggs) Bill 2011. The Bill passed the Upper House but was defeated in the House of Representatives due to opposition from the National Party. <https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LC20111014014>.
- 5. See, for example, Kelly Burke, ‘Weasel words on poultry, pork labels’, SMH (10/11/2003), <http://www.smh.com.au/national/weasel-words-on-poultry-pork-labels-20091109-i5go.html>; Karen Barlow, ‘From farm to fork’, ABC’s Lateline (25/3/2010), <http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2010/s2856547.htm>. See also Voiceless, ‘From Label to Liable: Scams, Scandals and Secrecy’ (2007), <https://voiceless.org.au/research-and-publications>.
- 6. See, for example, the comments of Justice North in Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v C.I. & Co Pty Ltd  FCA 1511.
- 8. For example, a 2006 national survey found that participants identified factory farming practices and treatment of livestock as amongst the most prominent issues in Australian animal welfare: TNS Social Research Consultants (2006) Attitudes Toward Animal Welfare, Canberra, July, Section 3.2 <http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/146748/tns_aw_research.pdf> (website no longer available).
- 9. For example, a 2009 Queensland survey found that 34% of participants would be willing to pay more for products derived from animals raised in accordance with higher animal welfare standards: Taylor, N and Signal, T (2009) ‘Willingness to Pay: Australian Consumers and “On the Farm” Welfare’, 12 JAAWS 345, p 351. In a survey conducted by Choice in May 2012, 85% of participants stated that animal welfare was the main reason for purchasing free range products: Choice, ‘Choice Survey on Consumer Expectations of Free Range Egg Labelling Key Findings Report – May 2012’, <http://www.choice.com.au/~/media/Files/SUBMISSIONS%20AND%20REPORTS/Free%20range%20key%20findings%20report.ashx>.
- 10. Unfortunately there is little information available about the number of vegetarians or vegans in Australia.According to Roy Morgan Research data, as of December 2006, 1,538,000 people in Australia aged 14 and over agree that “the food I eat is all, or almost all, vegetarian”. That equates to 9.1% of the population aged 14 and over: Vegetarian Victoria, ‘Statistics on Vegetarianism’, <http://www.vegetarianvictoria.org.au/going-vegetarian/statistics-on-vegetarianism.html>.A similar study in 2005 found that 30% of adults in Australia ‘usually or sometimes’ maintain a vegetarian diet: Health Focus International, HealthFocus International Trend Study: Australia, (2005).
- 11. See, for example, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v C.I. & Co Pty Ltd  FCA 1511. In this case, a Western Australian egg wholesalers C.I. & Co Pty Ltd, Antonia Pisano and Anna Pisano, supplied cartons of eggs to the public between 2004 and 2010 labelled as “Free Range” and “Fresh Range-Omega 3”. The Federal Court held that C.I. & Co had contravened the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) by engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct in falsely representing that the eggs were produced by a “different circumstance of production”. Justice North found the conduct was particularly reprehensible because it involved a high degree of deception: “the conduct amounted to a cruel deception on consumers who mostly seek out free range eggs as a matter of principle, hoping to advance the cause of animal welfare by so doing.” The Court considered that C.I. earned a significant amount of revenue they would not otherwise have earned if the eggs had been truthfully labelled as “cage eggs”.In Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Pepe’s Ducks Ltd  FCA 570, the Federal Court found Pepe’s Ducks Ltd, a leading supplier of duck meat products in Australia (approximately a 40% market share), contravened the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth) for the use of the phrases ‘open range’ from 2004 to 2012 and the phrase ‘grown nature’s way’ from 2007 to 2012 on its product packaging, website, delivery vehicles and signage. In addition to a number of other orders, the Federal Court ordered by consent that Pepe’s Ducks Ltd pay $375,000 in civil pecuniary penalties and $25,000 in costs arising from misleading statements about its ducks.In Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Turi Foods Pty Ltd (No 4)  FCA 665, the Federal Court found against two of Australia’s largest poultry producers, Baiada Poultry Pty Ltd and Bartter Enterprises Pty Limited, as well as the Australian Chicken and Meat Federation Inc., for the use of the phrase ‘free to roam’ in marketing and promotional material. The Federal Court found in favour of the ACCC, claiming that the respondents had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in accordance with the consumer protection legislation.In Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Pirovic Enterprises Pty Ltd (No 2)  FCA 1028, the Federal Court found against egg producer Pirovic Enterprises Pty Ltd for the use of the phrase “Pirovic Free Range Eggs” on egg cartons and the company website. The use of this phrase contravened the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) and, in addition to other orders, the Court ordered the respondent to pay $300,000 in pecuniary penalties and the sum of $25,000 to recompense the ACCC for its legal costs.The ACCC is currently bringing proceedings in the Federal Court against egg producers Derodi Pty Ltd (Derodi) and Holland Farms Pty Ltd (Holland). The consumer watchdog is alleging that their use of ‘free range’ in relation to their Ecoeggs, Field Fresh and Port Stephens egg brands was false and misleading in contravention of the Consumer Competition Act 2010 (Cth). See ACCC, ‘ACCC takes action against Ecoeggs supplier for free range claims’ (9 December 2014) <https://www.accc.gov.au/media-release/accc-takes-action-against-ecoeggs-supplier-for-free-range-claims>.In response to a direction from the ACCC, Australian Pork Limited, the peak industry body, was forced to correct claims that most pork production facilities already were sow stall free or would be by 2017. See the ACCC website for further information: https://www.accc.gov.au/
- 13. A 2009 survey conducted by Humane Society International revealed that Australian consumers want labelling reform. 98% of respondents agreed that full and adequate labelling is every consumer’s right, yet only 6% believed that current labels give enough information to allow them to make informed purchasing decisions. 95% of respondents indicated that they would be prepared to pay a little more for ethically produced food: Humane Society International, ‘The Results of HSI’s Consumer Survey Are In’ (9/11/2009) <http://www.hsi.org.au/index.php?catID=650>.