• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Terms such as ‘free-range’ and ‘organic’ should be treated with caution

In seeking to create a positive image, do some companies cross the line between artistic flourish and fraud?

Farmhouse, natural, artisan, organic, free-range – manufacturers and suppliers use such terms on labels to create the impression in a shopper’s mind that their food is better than the industrial-scale mass-market standard. But in seeking to create a positive image, do some companies cross the line between artistic flourish and fraud?

In Australia, a skirmish has broken out in the olive-oil market, after testing revealed 85% of “extra-virgin” olive oils commonly sold at supermarkets did not meet Australia’s voluntary standard for extra-virgin status. Repeated reports have emerged from the US of adulterated and fraudulently labelled olive oil; in some cases, it contained undisclosed seed oils that pose a risk to allergic consumers.

The same thing is probably happening here, though we don’t have firm evidence, says Laurence Eyres, chairman of the oils and fats specialist group at the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry. We have general regulations covering the use of descriptors, such as “extra virgin” for olive oil, but they are not monitored, says Eyres. He wants Australia’s more stringent olive-oil standards adopted here, including chemical analyses to check for aged and refined oils – commonly used as adulterants by fraudulent manufacturers.

The use of terms such as natural, farmhouse, artisan and traditional is unregulated, except by requirements in the Food Act 1981 and the Fair Trading Act 1986 for labelling to be truthful and accurate and not make false, misleading or deceptive representations. As demand grows for ethically produced, minimally processed foods, some unscrupulous companies have sought to game the system. When the (now-defunct) egg producer Forest Hill Farm was found to have falsely labelled cage eggs as free-range or barn-laid, the Commerce Commission prosecuted owner John Garnett, who was sentenced in 2014 to 12 months’ home detention and 200 hours’ community service.

Laurence Eyres.

In another case brought by the Commerce Commission, which enforces the Fair Trading Act, the High Court found New Zealand Nutritionals had made misleading claims about two dietary supplements: goats’ milk powder and goats’ milk tablets were described as “100% New Zealand made”, but all the active ingredients – including the goats’ milk powder – were imported. The commission also alleges that Yoghurt Story is promoting frozen yoghurt products that do not contain yoghurt. That case is still before the courts.

There are no national regulations defining the term “organic”, but producers can use any one of several voluntary programmes to have their products certified organic, including AsureQuality, BioGro and OrganicFarmNZ. The Ministry for Primary Industries also provides official assurances for organic food for export, says a spokesperson.

Exactly what constitutes “free-range” is a matter of debate in the food industry on both sides of the Tasman. A 2013 Australian study found that the eggs labelled as free-range in supermarkets “do not address animal welfare, environmental sustainability and public health concerns”, but met an “industrialised and watered-down” notion of what the term free-range means.

The SPCA here has long questioned the validity of free-range food claims and launched an independent Blue Tick accreditation scheme: eggs and meat displaying the SPCA tick have been produced on approved farms where animal welfare is independently audited in a process that, importantly, includes unannounced visits.

To be sure you are getting truly organic or free-range food, choose independently accredited products. For good-quality, genuine olive oils, Eyres recommends buying New Zealand-made oils. And if you think a food label is making untrue claims, tell the Commerce Commission via its website, comcom.govt.nz, or by calling 0800 943 600.

Photo/Getty Images

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.