The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has urged the food industry to curb its use of potentially misleading labels when marketing goods, launching a new food descriptors guideline to make it easier for manufacturers to comply with consumer protection guidelines.

The aim of the guideline, ACCC commissioner John Martin said, is to help businesses understand what is considered acceptable and unacceptable labelling under the requirements of national competition and consumer protection laws contained in the Trade Practices Act 1974.

“The ACCC is particularly concerned by the apparent upswing in terms like organic and free-range where business seeks to take advantage of strong consumer demand and where the absence of regulation may provide opportunity for some business to engage in unlawful conduct”, Martin said.

“The ACCC believes that all representations about food and beverage should be based upon the truth but acknowledges that some claims are merely puffery – those such as farmhouse or country style may be simply fanciful or exaggerated. The guide sets out the ACCC’s views around claims that describe a product’s quality, quantity, composition and/or origin,” Martin continued.

The guidelines cover descriptions of foods in the form of words or pictures, stated or implied, on a product label, a company website, or in a paid-for advertisement.

Martin commented that the issue of foods described as natural was a particularly thorny one. “The ACCC believes that consumers would have a reasonable expectation that a food describing itself to be natural or pure should not contain food additives or artificial preservatives. Unfortunately in the past this has not always been the case. Foods that claim to be fresh should not have been processed and then reconstituted. Consumers should not be misled by food and beverage businesses relying on finer details or qualifications that are hidden in the ingredients list or elsewhere on the product’s label,” Martin said. “Business needs to be mindful that consumers are not food technicians and may therefore not appreciate some of the finer nuances of food manufacturing”.

The publication of the guidelines is an indication that the ACCC is preparing to step-up action against companies who set out to mislead consumers. “Those who fail to comply with the law risk action being taken against them by the ACCC, for breaches of the Trade Practices Act, or by State and Territory food law enforcement agencies for breaches of the Food Standards Code,” Martin warned.