Current public concern about the inadequacy of country of origin information for food items is another example of the all too frequent failure of many Australian industries to provide consumers with important information that is easy to notice, read, and understand.

It is also anther example of governments failing to act in the public interest by supporting the “do nothing or as little as possible”, “remove/reduce red tape”, etc. arguments of many industries.

Consumer advocates have experienced these arguments and attitudes for many years and on numerous matters including: the provision of front of pack nutrition labelling of foods; the key terms and conditions of contracts provided only in tiny print; and the watering down of protections for people seeking financial advice.

As a result, with a few notable exceptions such as loan comparison interest rates which must be displayed in the same size print as annual rates, consumers are often either not provided with any information or that provided is hard to find, difficult to read, and not easy to understand and use.

This is certainly the case with Country of Origin information on packaged products which usually is very difficult to locate, not easy to read, and far too frequently virtually meaningless to most consumers.

Another example is the provision by supermarkets of the unit price (price per unit of measure) of pre-packaged products like cereals, detergents, and toothpaste.

Federal legislation requires large supermarkets to provide unit prices that are “prominent” and ‘legible”, however the print sizes used to show many unit prices on shelf labels and other price signs are still far too small, resulting in the information being very difficult, and even impossible, to notice and read.

The problem is particularly great for “special offers” and items on the lower shelves, very unfair on elderly and other consumers with less than perfect vision and mobility, and substantially reduces consumer use of unit prices to compare prices/values and save money.

Examples of small print grocery unit pricing

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A 2011 survey[1] of over 1000 supermarket shoppers revealed that unit pricing would be more useful for 67% if the print size were bigger or more prominent. Yet, unlike their UK counterparts, Australian supermarkets have failed to voluntarily improve significantly the quality of their unit pricing, and the ACCC, which administers the legislation, has taken insufficient action to make them do so.

And, even though 74% of 3000 consumers surveyed[2] last year wanted quantity statements (net content) on packaged products to continue to be provided on the front of the pack, currently some industry sectors are pushing hard to be allowed to only display this information on the back of a package where it will not bee seen by most shoppers  They are also pushing to be given much more discretion about how to display the quantity information.  Currently, there are clear rules about minimum print size, presentation, etc. design to help industry know what is needed to achieve the prominence and legibility of information consumers need.

Industry has no difficulty ensuring that the information it wants consumers to use is extremely prominent and legible, but enormous difficulty doing so for the information that consumers value highly.

Governments and industry must learn from the Country of Origin labelling furore that the provision of prominent, legible, and understandable information to help consumers make informed choices is highly beneficial not only for consumers but for the country as whole.

This is because well informed and engaged consumers substantially increase competition in the marketplace which adds to national well-being by delivering greater efficiency, productivity, and choice.

 

Ian Jarratt is a retired economist who is a volunteer member of the Queensland Consumers Association and of the executive committee of the Consumers Federation of Australia.  He lead the national consumer campaign that in 2009 resulted in large supermarkets being required to provide on shelf labels, etc. the unit price (price per unit of measure) of pre-packaged products in addition to the total  price. 

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