When South Australian chef and businesswoman, Maggie Beer received notice from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) that the labelling on four of her top selling products was found to be misleading, she made the decision to tackle the incident head on.
In mid-August, the ACCC released a statement detailing that Maggie Beer Products Pty Ltd had accepted a court enforceable undertaking for misleading customers following an investigation by the competition watchdog.
The text, A Barossa Food Tradition can be found on the bottom of the Maggie Beer pheasant logo which is displayed across the entire range of Maggie Beer products. Unlike the other 200 products in the Maggie Beer range which are manufactured in the Barossa Valley or South Australia, four products – extra virgin olive oil, aged red wine vinegar, rosemary and verjuice biscuits and the Maggie Beer ice cream range – are manufactured at facilities in Victoria and Queensland.
In addition to the text within the logo, the words ‘Maggie Beer Products: 2 Keith Street Tanunda South Australia 5352’ also appeared of the packaging of each product.
As a result of these representations, the ACCC concluded that a reasonable consumer would assume, or would have gained the overall impression that each of these products was manufactured in Tanunda, the Barossa Valley or South Australia.
The ACCC also made reference to misrepresentations made by Maggie Beer Products during a “Local Fair” held at a Woolworths supermarket in Mitcham, South Australia in April last year when a representative of the company stated that its ice cream products and Rosemary and Verjuice biscuits were made locally, when they were not.
Place of origin claims
According to the ACCC, place of origin claims are to be used only when a good originates from a more localised region or place than the country that it is manufactured in. All false or misleading claims about the place of origin are specifically prohibited under Australian Consumer Law and as such, businesses found to be using such claims must ensure that it does not mislead customers.
Food Magazine recently spoke with Beer about the misrepresentations. According to Beer, the products were initially made in the Barossa, however a steady increase in demand together with new product developments meant that the company had to look interstate to manufacture those four particular product lines.
“Everything started here in this Barossa kitchen,” Beer told Food Magazine. “We only went interstate when we didn’t have the equipment or technology to do a product that I wanted to put on the market efficiently, and that is honestly the only reason.
“I had no idea that anyone could be misled by it, and as soon as I was told by the ACCC, I absolutely said 'we’re going to make sure that this can never happen again.'
“We put on our website for anyone and everyone to read why something was made interstate – we’ve never hidden it. But I never, ever, want anyone to think that I set out to mislead so if anyone was misled, my apology is so heartfelt, but I truly believed that I was never doing anything wrong.”
To rectify the situation Beer says that she will be modifying each label on her entire range which spans over 200 products and will include added information on the State in which each product is made to ensure that there is no way a similar event can be repeated.
“We have gone far beyond what the ACCC has asked us to do, so we have made the decision to take A Barossa Food Tradition off every label because having two different logos from a marketing perspective is just absolute chaos, so the idea – sad as I am to take it off – is to use the back story to celebrate provenance, so I’m just tackling it in a different way.”
Take everything into account
When asked about the advice that she would give to fellow manufacturers to prevent such events from happening, Beer says that absolutely everything needs to be taken into account.
“You have got to look at it from far beyond FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) regulations,” she says. “You have think, ‘what can a consumer possibly get out of this?’
“I think there is no doubt that we are going to be a good example… What the ACCC is saying and what I have always believed is that provenance is so vitally important, so this is really opening up the conversation, and is putting the headlights on the fact that provenance is absolute."
The issue of accurate labelling – particularly regarding provenance – has been in the spotlight for quite some time, and as a result consumers are scrutinising labels now more than ever before. Beer believes that this is something that should be encouraged.
“Customers are reading labels and I’m glad that they are – I think that it’s a good thing that they do so.
“I just don’t want there to be anything that anyone can think of – that I can’t think of – that could possibly mislead. I want to go so far and beyond that.”
Beer's daughter, Saskia Beer, was also pulled up by the competition watchdog earlier this year, for making false or misleading representations in relation to product labelling.
Saskia Beer’s Barossa Farm Produce Pty Ltd was found to have made representations between 9 December 2010 and 28 May 2013 that the pork used in its “The Black-Pig” smallgoods range was that of heritage Berkshire pigs, or other heritage black pig breeds when that was not the case.
Barossa Farm Produce Pty Ltd accepted the court enforceable undertaking from the ACCC for the misrepresentations stating at the time that the incident was an isolated one.
“This is an isolated instance that arose as a result of miscommunication on the part of our supplier and a failure on our part to adequately verify, in this instance, the source of the product,” Saskia Beer said at the time.
“There was no intention to mislead or misrepresent in any way the origin of the product.”
Supermarket giant Coles is another manufacturer to be pulled up for misleading or deceptive conduct by the ACCC for its ‘Baked Today, Sold Today’ and ‘Freshly Baked In-Store’ claims on various ‘Cuisine Royale’ and ‘Coles Bakery’ branded bread products.
The ACCC said that the marketing of these products was misleading as the bread is partially baked and frozen off-site, transported to Coles stores and ‘finished’ in-store.
Carlton & United Breweries were also in the spotlight in relation to representations that Byron Bay Pale Lager was brewed by a small brewer in Byron Bay when that was not the case.
Even though manufacturers may have the best of intentions and genuinely believe that they are fully compliant with all of the relevant regulation, it is possible for things to slip through the cracks. Beer says that the investigation served as a wakeup call for her, and she urges fellow manufacturers to carefully consider each message that is sent to consumers on product labels.
“The labels must be accurate and looked at with a consumer’s eyes so there is no possibility of a customer being misled,” she says.
“I think every food company tries its absolute best. But remember we were doing everything perfectly to the book of our FSANZ regulations – no one has any argument about that – so we thought we were ok, we really believed it, so this came as a real shock. But that will, as I said, open up the conversation for other food producers.”