In the absence of streamlined food labelling laws the University of Adelaide’s Professor Wendy Umberger urges consumers interested in an ethical Mother’s Day feast to do their own research.
With issues like food waste, climate change, environmental degradation, animal welfare, obesity rates, antibiotic resistance and global workers’ rights becoming more visible in daily life, today’s consumer is becoming increasingly interested in the ethics of the food value chain ‘from field to fork’.
As executive director of the university’s Centre for Global Food and Resources, and an internationally renowned behavioural economist, Wendy Umberger has dedicated countless hours to better understand the motivations and implications of changes in consumer and producer behaviour.
Research undertaken at the Centre for Global Food and Resources, indicates that the tendency for consumers to purchase ethical products is frequently motivated by a desire to consume in a way that is better for the environment, better for people, or produced in a more sustainable way.
The food industry has taken notice of this and labels are now laden with more information than ever before. ‘Organic’, ‘free range’, ‘pasture raised’ and ‘biodynamic’ products are popping up all over the shelves, and often marked at a higher price point, with some supermarket home brand labels even making these claims.
“In an environment where products have multiple processing, packaging, and distribution points, it’s difficult for consumers to be clear about a product’s history from farm gate to shopping basket,” Umberger says. “Searching for information about how food is produced can be time consuming and costly, and in many cases, consumers’ only option is to trust that the retailer, manufacturer, farmers and traders are all providing truthful information every step of the way.”
Labelling is further complicated because, in Australia, there are only standards for some claims, including ‘organic’ and ‘free range’.
When it comes to ‘organic’ then there are issues that can cause confusion for consumers. For example, there are six different independent organisations approved by the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to certify organic food products. Despite there being certifying bodies, it is legal to market a product and call it ‘organic’ without providing proof of certification.
Consumers need to be smart when considering food labels and claims. Even when there is a standard underpinning a claim, consumers should check that the criterion align with their perceptions and personal values.
Umberger’s top recommendations for today’s ethical consumer:
Do your own research – don’t assume labels indicate quality or ethical production. Review standards outlined by certification organisations and clarify that their standards match your own.
Get tech savvy – before buying mum that box of chocolates, download (or hardcopy purchase) Shop Ethical which gives helpful assessments on company business practices against environmental, social and economic criterion.
Go straight to the source – if possible, limit the number of touch points from farm gate to the plate. Head down to your local farmers market. Speak to the producer; understand their methods before making a purchase.
Reduce, reuse, recycle – remind mum of her heyday in the ‘70s and wrap your Mother’s Day gifts in vintage fabric
Speak up! Talk to your local MP and ask them to push streamlined labelling laws for all producers.
This article is presented by The University of Adelaide