Researchers at the University of Adelaide have found that despite growing interest among shoppers to make ethical food choices, they feel that food labelling is not empowering them to do so.
Dr Heather Bray, a Senior Research Associate in the University’s School of Humanities, says that although most Australian food labels are currently adequate to allow basic discrimination between products – such as core ingredients and nutritional content – many products today claim to be ‘ethical’ in some way, without consumers really understanding what that means.
“Such labelling often lacks consistency and does not present consumers with enough in-depth detail to help inform their everyday food decisions,” she said. “Our research shows that people who want to eat ‘ethically’ are often frustrated when they try to make good choices about what to buy.”
The studies show that many people who are willing to eat animal products believe quite strongly that free-range meat is of better quality, is more nutritious and tastes better than non-free-range meat.
“In this case, people who are reading a product labelled as being humane may also be reading that label as an indicator of quality,” Dr Bray said. “However, our studies also show that most consumers have little to no understanding of meat production and how free-range meat or eggs differ from non-free range.”
Current GM food labelling is also inadequate for a number of reasons, Dr Bray says.
“While there are laws to ensure that food containing GM ingredients must be labelled as such, there are also a number of exceptions within the labelling requirements,” she said.
“There is also no legislation regarding labelling to indicate the absence of GM ingredients. Consumers who buy a product marked as being ‘GM free’, expecting to receive a ‘healthier’ version of a product, may not realise that all versions of the product available in Australia are GM free.”
Dr Bray says shoppers often misinterpret when there are GM components in food.
“Although there are no fresh GM fruit or vegetables sold in Australia, many of our research participants viewed seedless watermelons and ‘overly large’ strawberries with suspicion as being potentially GM,” she said. “This is a case where better labelling may help inform the consumer.”
The Australian Research Council-funded research project is part of ongoing work by the Food Values Group at the University of Adelaide.