THE Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has concluded investigations into alleged misleading conduct in the pork industry arising from raising claims such as ‘free range’, ‘bred free range’ and ‘bred outdoors’.
Individual producers and the peak representative industry body, Australian Pork Ltd, have cooperated to address the ACCC’s concerns.
“It is important that the description on product packaging and in promotional material accurately reflects the living conditions of the animals raised for the production of meat products,” ACCC chairman Rod Sims said.
“Marketing material must use words that consumers can understand, irrespective of whether the words have some special industry meaning.”
The ACCC has accepted court enforceable undertakings from P&M Quality Smallgoods Pty Ltd (trading as Primo Smallgoods), George Weston Foods Pty Ltd (trading as KR Castlemaine) and Pastoral Pork Co Pty Ltd (trading as Otway Pork) as a result of the investigations.
In each of the three cases, the ACCC considered that the reference to either ‘free range’ (used by Primo Smallgoods) or ‘bred free range’ (used by Otway Pork and KR Castlemaine) in the promotion and labelling of the pork products was likely to give consumers the overall impression that the pigs were farmed according to free range methods.
These methods include that, at a minimum, pigs are able to move about freely in an outdoor paddock on most ordinary days. In fact, this was not the case, ACCC maintained.
“In the undertakings, the producers have acknowledged that the conduct may have contravened the Australian Consumer Law. In all cases, the producers have committed not to use the same descriptions unless their farming practices are such that, at a minimum, the pigs are able to move about freely in an outdoor paddock on most ordinary days. They have also agreed to implement consumer law compliance programs and publish corrective notices,” Mr Sims said.
Separately, Australian Pork Ltd agreed to change the title and logo of one of its pork production standards from “Outdoor Bred” to “Outdoor Bred. Raised indoors on straw.”
ACCC in its final report said it considered that the inclusion of the words “Raised indoors on straw” made it clearer to consumers that the pigs were born outdoors but raised indoors from weaning until slaughter.
The ACCC understood that some traders had used the “Outdoor Bred” and “Bred Free Range” statements to describe the living conditions of the sow (the mother pig), rather than the pigs that are raised and slaughtered for the pork product sold to consumers.
“The ACCC considers that consumers are unlikely to interpret these marketing statements to refer to the sow and therefore considers that use of these statements in this context is likely to be misleading,” it 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,” Mr Sims said.
“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.”
Zoning-in on credence claims
The ACCC has actively focused on ‘credence’ claims in primary industries, particularly those with potential to adversely impact the competitive process and small businesses.
Credence claims are those that refer to premium attributes a product may enjoy over others, and are difficult for consumers to test on their face. The ACCC identified practices in the pork industry at risk of becoming industry-wide.
“The outcomes of the investigations and the active engagement by traders and stakeholders show that the ACCC is able to work with relevant industries to ensure the best outcome for consumers,” it said.
The three court enforceable undertakings are available on ACCC’s s87B undertakings register.
From December 2009 to the present time, Primo Smallgoods supplied pork products labelled as “free range” when in fact the pigs, sourced from Denmark, had been confined to areas that were roofed or partially roofed and had solid or partially slatted floors.
Between July 2000 and December 2014, Otway Pork promoted its products as “bred free range”. From 2008, some of KR Castlemaine’s pork products were also promoted as “bred free range”. The pigs used for these pork products were in fact born outdoors but raised indoors in straw based shelters from the age of approximately 21 days.