The Truth in Labels

reading-free-range-labelAt the end of the day, the consumer has a right to know and choose what they are buying.

Consumers are no strangers to animal welfare labelling on animal products. It is now common practice for consumers to choose meat, eggs and dairy depending on their welfare standards.

With growing awareness for sustainable development and animal welfare, consumer demand for free range is increasing and producers are responding. Shelves are packed with products labelled free range.

Such an ethically sustainable market is leading to significant improvements in animal welfare conditions for farm animals. Consumers are the driving force. They are supporting the retail of products which in turn support improved welfare standards conducted by producers. To direct such market forces to the more humane treatment of animals is a great achievement.

However, with such an array it can be difficult for consumers to choose which to buy. Moreover, if not administered effectively certain factors can impede the goals of improving animal welfare.

A major factor is labelling. In the absence of national labelling standards for animal welfare, there exists a suite of standards and certification schemes which all promote products that support the humane treatment of animals.

In late 2009, a Ministerial review, the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council’s Food Labelling and Law Policy Review (the Review), into food labelling law and policy was announced and recently published its Final Report. 

The Final Report identified issues directly relating to method of production as specific consumer issues which have the potential to develop more agreed upon definitions. Specifically, it was mentioned that where the market operates efficiently there is no need for mandatory regulation, although in certain cases with specific values issues there may be advantages in developing a prescriptive definitional framework to ensure a level playing field.
Recommendations were also made to consider the benefit of establishing agreed standards under the auspices of Standards for terms related to animal husbandry; and that industry and special interest groups develop and apply a responsive and more structured self-regulatory approach to consumer values issues. 
Whilst recommendations do remain ambiguous for Truth in Labelling, certain aspects of the Final Report do present an opportunity to pressure industry and government to do more.  The Review’s Final report can be accessed here.

In the meantime, consumers have a variety of schemes and standards supporting animal welfare products to choose from. The online consumer guide aims to provide transparency to such a competitive market and provide consumers with information they can use to make informed purchasing decisions.

A National Consumer Survey into method of production for animal products and how they are labelled revealed that consumers want labelling reform. 98% of respondents agree that full and adequate labelling is every consumer's right, yet only 6% believe that current labels give enough information to allow them to make informed purchasing decisions.