Why the ACCC has not taken action on vegan food labels

Why Australia's consumer watchdog has not taken action on vegan food labels

HOW the consumer watchdog picks its battles has been unpacked during public hearings for the senate inquiry into the definitions of meat.

The inquiry's chair, Queensland senator Susan McDonald, drilled Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) representatives on how the national consumer law champion came to determine it would not pursue enforcement action on vegan food labels using livestock images and terms like beef when they contained no beef at all.

It appeared that, in a nutshell, the ACCC has bigger fish to fry.

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The extent of economic or consumer harm occurring and the impact of the issue on vulnerable consumers were key factors considered when prioritising how ACCC's finite resources would be deployed, the inquiry was told.

The ACCC has an obligation to prudently utilise taxpayer dollars.

ACCC deputy chair Mick Keogh said the first assessment was whether a breach of the Australian Consumer Law had occurred.

If so, decisions about further actions were guided by the above priorities.

That process had, for example, resulted in the ACCC prioritising issues in the new motor vehicles sector over recent years, about which it had received around 10,000 consumer-related contacts per year.

The ACCC had been successful in significant legal actions against Ford and Mazda and in achieving administrative outcomes with Toyota, Hyundai and Holden, Mr Keogh reported.

Only 20 complaints had been received about vegan food labels, and some were from livestock representative bodies rather than individual consumers.

"In considering the complaints we have received about protein substitutes, our view is that a court would be unlikely to consider that the labelling of the products brought to our attention would mislead an ordinary consumer," Mr Keogh said.

He also made the point that anyone who did believe the Australian Consumer Law had been breached could initiate their own actions. ACCC involvement was not required.

Senator McDonald questioned why the ACCC relies on complaints by individual consumers, given most consumers either cannot be bothered going to these lengths or are unaware of such processes.

Should the ACCC be more proactive in investigating consumer satisfaction, she asked.

While it was not the case the ACCC relied solely on consumer complaints to decide on action, such complaints were usually a reliable way to gauge the level of concern in the community about a particular issue, senators were told.

Executive general manager of the compliance and fair trading division at the ACCC Rami Greiss said an example was when the pandemic hit and people weren't able to access travel and accommodation, and found themselves out of pocket.

Thousands contacted the ACCC.

"In that case, there was actually only a little that we could do because much of the law is inoperative, but it gave us a sense of how strong the issue was in the community," Mr Greiss said.

"It's an important marker for us to gauge that, based on contacts we received.

"In this instance we've had 20 complaints. That doesn't really give us a sense of great concern."

Senator McDonald: "You don't think that the price of flights and accommodation would be so significantly a greater part of the budget of the consumer and that would make them more inclined to make a complaint than something that costs perhaps less than $20?"

Mr Greiss: "You're right, but that is part of the prioritisation process. We've got to look at the level of harm that is encountered by consumers from the conduct in question."

The ACCC has taken action against livestock production industries for labelling issues, it was revealed.

The businesses Luv-a-Duck, Pepe's Ducks and Turi Foods were targeted for misleading labelling by using statements such as 'free to roam' or images of open spaces.

What's the difference, senators asked.

Mr Greiss said every claim was assessed on its own merits.

This was a much clearer case of creating a misrepresentation than descriptors such as beef or chicken alongside disclaimers such as plant- based, he said.

"When you look at the totality of the representation in the current packaging, it doesn't create the overall impression that it's a beef or chicken product. At most, it creates a sense of confusion, which the courts have found not to breach our act," he said.

This story Why Australia's consumer watchdog has not taken action on vegan food labels first appeared on The Land.