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6 July 2017

Opinion: Beware of the patter

Just how effective are our consumer protection laws?

We live in a time when it’s never been easier to find out stuff. If I want to eat only free-range eggs, dine on humanely raised pork, or eat probiotics because I’m told they’re good for me, I can. Or can I?

We supposedly have good consumer protection laws stopping manufacturers or food producers making misleading claims about their products and services. But when I look at this issue of the magazine and the wealth of new content online, I’m beginning to wonder just how effective those laws are.

Take free-range eggs. Consumer demand for them has never been higher. Three out of 4 consumers we recently surveyed said they bought free-range at least some of the time. And they were happy to pay a premium — a dozen free-range eggs can cost more than twice those from cage-kept hens.

However, while there are 30 brands touting free-range claims, there is no standard definition of what “free-range” means. If you’re like me, you think “free-range” means the chooks get out and about, but that may or may not be true. We don’t think that’s right. For consumers to be confident they are buying free range, there should be a mandatory standard measure.

Equally, if pork carries a “Pigcare” label you’d expect the meat had been farmed to standards higher than what’s expected by the law. But not so according to the Commerce Commission. It says the label, which we criticised when it was launched in 2010, risked breaching the Fair Trading Act and misleading consumers. In fact, the label signals only that farmers have met the minimum standards of the animal welfare code. A survey carried out by the pork industry showed consumers thought the label meant Pigcare-accredited farmers used ethical practices and cared for the welfare of pigs. But this may not be consistent with practices on some pig farms which qualified to use the label, the commission said. 

In this issue, Consumer investigative writer Olivia Wannan has looked into claims made for probiotics — often touted as assisting the relief of stomach problems associated with using antibiotics. But of the many probiotic strains, experts reckon only a couple have any effect on avoiding tummy trouble. And across 22 probiotic dairy products we looked at in supermarkets, we couldn’t find one which contained either of these two strains. 

And then there are anti-ageing cosmetics. There is an argument all claims for cosmetics should be treated with the scepticism they deserve. But the industry is getting increasingly clever at how it promotes its age-defying lotions. “Scientifically proven”, “8 out of 10 women saw results” and “breakthrough ingredients” all suggest it’s possible to turn back time. We’ve looked at 9 common skincare brands — you can read on for yourself to get the sad news. 

If nothing else, this issue is evidence, if any were needed, our services are more essential than ever. Someone’s got to sort the proof from the patter.

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