The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has concluded investigations into alleged misleading conduct in the pork industry arising from claims such as ‘free range’, ‘bred free range’ and ‘bred outdoors’. Individual producers and the peak representative industry body, Australian Pork Limited, 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. Marketing material must use words that consumers can understand, irrespective of whether the words have some special industry meaning,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.
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 Company Pty Ltd (trading as Otway Pork) as a result of these investigations.
In each of these three cases, the ACCC considered that the reference to either ‘free range’ (used by Primo Small goods) 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.
“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 Limited has agreed to change the title and logo of one of its pork production standards from “Outdoor Bred” to “Outdoor Bred. Raised indoors on straw”. The ACCC considers that the inclusion of the words “Raised indoors on straw” makes it clearer to consumers that the pigs are born outdoors but raised indoors from weaning until slaughter.
The ACCC understands that some traders have 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.
“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.”
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 these 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.
The three court enforceable undertakings are available on the s87B undertakings register.
From December 2009 to the present time, Primo Smallgoods has 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 to straw based shelters from the age of approximately 21 days.