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Truth in Labelling

At the heart of the correspondence theory of truth is the concept that what we identify as true corresponds to the way things actually are – to the facts.

Much of what we eat and drink is prepared and packaged and labeled and bought by us in the belief that we are buying what it says on the label.

There are already some good labelling laws in place (for example, those dealing with ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates) but it is telling that there are many people and organisations currently campaigning for improvements in the field. Clearly, more needs to be said and much more needs to be done if we are to see a genuine correspondence between food labels and the truth.

For example, when you purchase a chicken, the label may tell you it was ‘free range’. (For a chicken to be labelled as free-range, the current requirement is that there should not be more than 1500 hens per hectare ¬¬– that means that on average each hen has about 2.6 by 2.6 meters of space to herself when she is out in the open.) But how the hen is treated while alive does not tell you how it meets its end; there is nothing on the label to tell you how the hen was slaughtered. I believe there is a case for a five-star slaughtering rating to be included on the label for any meat product – one star for the least humane slaughtering method, five stars for the most humane. Would such labelling make a difference? The vigorous opposition such a requirement is likely to engender answers that question.

What’s more, a product made overseas but packed in Australia can legally be labeled ‘made from Australian and imported products’! Surely, what the container is made of should be labelled separately from the one describing its contents. Because cost is used to determine what is local and what is imported the cost of the container should not be allowed as part of the cost of Australian content. Few people would be aware that under current legislation the cost of shipping goods to Australia may also be included as part of the Australian cost component, along with any insurance and port clearance costs.

One more example relates to superficially accurate labelling that could yet mislead the consumer. There is an urban myth about second-grade grey-coloured salmon being marketed with great success by the use of the slogan ‘guaranteed not to turn pink in the can’. That sort of labelling does exist, if perhaps a little less blatantly. We might be told, for instance, that a product is ‘sugar free’ when by its very nature it does not contain any sugar. This category of labelling includes such beauties as ‘10% less added salt’ or ‘99% fat-free’. The potential misconceptions that arise from technically accurate but nonetheless deceptive labelling suggest that a label should not only be correct but also tend not to misinform. After all, cigarettes are 100% fat free.

I believe that in Australia one way of creating a better and fairer society is by persuading governments to introduce and police better labelling laws. It is a low-cost, high-reward way of making a contribution.

So Google the websites, engage with social media, and make your voice heard!


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