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Name games: When bad labelling gets in the way of good choices

When it comes to shouting at the supermarket, toddlers have the market cornered on audio impact. But in terms of mental overload, products themselves can give a tantrum in the confectionery aisle a run for its money.

Farm fresh!

Organic essences!

100% natural ingredients!!

As brands have come to recognise the desire of many consumers to lower the impacts of their purchases, eco-labelling has emerged as the loud speaker of choice in the battle for trolley real estate.

For the most part this has been a good thing. The more information we have to make a judgment about a product on ethical criteria – including issues like animal welfare and sustainability – the better. Not a lot of us have the time or desire to hang around a supermarket reading the fine print on everything we pick up. We appreciate eco-labelling for its ability to sort out the good guys from the bad guys in a quick glance along the shelves.

But there’s a downside. Some manufacturers label their products in a way that actually makes it harder to make a better choice – and it’s not just imposter eco-labels causing the trouble.

Here are three examples of poor labelling practices that you will likely come across during a grocery shop, and Otter’s tips for regaining control over what you buy.

Dodgy certification and the free-range problem

Free-range eggs are the classic example of rogue “certifications” conning shoppers into thinking they’re getting a better product. There are currently at least ten free-range logos that you might encounter on an egg carton, but only six of these include a requirement for chickens to have access to pasture. This is despite a recent CHOICE survey showing 65 per cent of us expect the term free-range to mean precisely that.

Many smaller suppliers use the words “free-range” on egg cartons without linking to a certification at all. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the chickens are living in cages, there’s no way to be sure, and there are many examples of small brands being fined for falsely advertising the living conditions of their birds.

Carton of eggs

State and territory ministers recently met with the hope of adopting a national standard for free-range eggs, but at the moment, if you want to be sure about animal welfare you’ll need to do a little homework before buying. To pick a standard which you feel comfortable with, take a look at the Humane Society International’s comparison of the major logos.

The free-range issue also extends to poultry and other meat. HSI rate the applicable standards here too, but if in doubt buy organic. The Australian Organic logo is independently audited, contains robust criteria for animal welfare and is widely available for purchase.

Otter tip: how to choose an eco-label

Generally, a trust-worthy eco-label, such as those promoting free-range or organic products, should be able to tick off all of the following items:

The criteria for certification are available for consumers to view online.


The certification body is independent of the industry it operates in, or is at least transparent about its links to the industry.


Certified producers are independently audited to ensure they meet the label’s requirements.


Alternatively, see if the eco-label you’re investigating is a member of ISEAL or the Global Ecolabeling Network, two international bodies ensuring certifications deliver on their promises.

A fish by any other name: ambiguous labelling

Fish on iceFresh fish presents its own problem in terms of labelling. This is because some fish species have more aliases than a character in a spy film.

Take Orange Roughy, which makes its way to Australian tables from the cold depths of the Southern Ocean and Tasman Sea. It’s universally recognised as a bad choice due to overfishing.

But at the fish monger Orange Roughy also goes by the names Sea Perch, Deep Sea Perch, Red Roughy and Reef Fillets. This can mean consumers looking to do the right thing and avoid this species might unwittingly end up with it on their plates.

Another example is flake: although many consumers know that this term refers to shark fillets, it’s completely open as to what species of shark that might be.

Fish names logoThe good news is that a standard for fish names does exist, but it’s voluntary for retailers. Try to choose a certified outlet when buying fish and to avoid confusion, use a sustainable fish guide that lists all alternative names. Otter recommends Good Fish, Bad Fish.

Certifications for sustainable fisheries also exist, the most-widely recognised being that of the Marine Stewardship Council.

Palm oil, but you wouldn’t know it: the absence of labelling

Palm oil, much of which is responsible for the destruction of natural forest in Southeast Asia, is a tricky issue to deal with at the supermarket.

NGOs like the World Wide Fund for Nature aren’t in favour of a boycott of palm oil, since this will only encourage companies to rely on alternatives with problems of their own. The focus instead is on manufacturers moving to 100% sustainable palm oil.

However, due to poor labelling practices – this time the complete absence of information about whether a product contains palm oil – it would be hard for consumers to follow through on a boycott anyway.

Under the current national guidelines, products are only required to list the presence of vegetable oil, not its source. This means you’re unlikely to find palm oil named as an ingredient.

Oil palm kernels

While more and more suppliers are signing up for certification of sustainable palm oil, at the moment it’s best to do some of your own research into the brands you buy regularly. This might mean emailing the company if you can’t find any info online.

If you do find that a product contains palm oil, the next step is to contact the brand and demand that they move towards sourcing sustainable ingredients. Alternatively, Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia has a list of common groceries that are either palm-oil free or certified.

Food labelling and ethical choices: more issues to keep an eye out for.

• Country of origin labels

It’s hard to judge food miles with inadequate labelling – “Made in Australia” can mean imported raw ingredients. Visit Shop Ethical for more info.

• GM food

While genetically modified ingredients do require labelling, there are a lot of loopholes that can let GM food items into your shopping trolley. Shop Ethical have a handy factsheet on this issue as well.

Food labelling, including eco-certifications as well as product names and ingredients, is supposedly there for the information of consumers. But as we’ve seen, not all labelling does a good job of helping you choose products in line with your values.

While progress is happening in each of the examples we’ve used here, it’s always good to keep your wits about you and remember the limitations of different labelling systems when shopping. In most cases, by doing a bit of research before you head to the supermarket you can be sure you’re getting what you pay for.

– Will Farrier, Otter Staff

Photo credits:
Tomatoes – Adapted from original by Susy Morris (cc)
Eggs – Pietro Izzo (cc)
Fish – Meng He (cc)
Palm kernels – oneVillage Initiative (cc)

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