Bad eggs lead to mistrust of brands

First published in Fairfax Unlimited 12 August 2014

This week in New Zealand, you’d be forgiven for taking your time in the egg section of the supermarket.

As John Garnett from Forest Hill Farm apologises for scamming you by flogging caged eggs as free-range, he joins a whole host of companies that get caught misleading the public.

Garnett’s dodgy eggs are just the tip of the iceberg. More and more companies are simply not what they’re cracked up to be. At best, their marketing claims are slightly exaggerated. At worst, their fraudulent practices are dangerous and even deadly. Who can forget China’s melamine-tainted milk formula.

Is it any wonder customers are not as loyal to brands as they used to be? A lot of them don’t deserve it. Manuka honey that has no Manuka (or honey) in it. Extra virgin olive oil that’s 97 per cent canola. Beef burgers that were once, er, horses. We’ve seen it all.

And who are we to argue? Our demands for lower prices come at a cost. In Australia, we also have our fair share of mislabelling. Including that whole free-range, barn-laid, cage-egg debate.

For example, in 2013 when Woolworths made the rather grand announcement that it would phase out all cage-laid eggs by 2018, one could be forgiven for being a tad unexcited by the gesture.

The term “free-range” is used rather liberally in Australia. While in New Zealand the Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare says a free-range hen can share a hectare of accommodation with up to 2,500 of its closest pals, in Australia there is no national code. In Aus,  “free-range” can mean hens are snuggling with as many as 20,000 fellow chook roommates. Yet the magical words “free-range” on the carton can command a premium of up to double the price of their caged friends.

Australian egg brands have taken some pretty extraordinary measures to differentiate themselves from one another. There are so many of them out there, it’s mind numbing. Farm Pride even have a range with a video viewer, so you can check out what the chickens are up to live on the chook cam. (Although at time of writing, the cam seemed to be down. Perhaps the chickens just wanted some privacy?)

Apart from eggs, a few recent scandals have included Aussie chef Maggie Beer’s daughter, Saskia Beer, admitting that her premium Black Pig small goods don’t, in fact, have any black pig.

Our friends at Coles have had to dump their very catchy – and entirely untrue – ‘baked today, sold today’ catchphrase. Cut them some slack people.  They focus-grouped ‘baked half way round the world, but warmed up right here in Australia’ and it didn’t test as well, okay?

The fact is companies that get caught making up grossly inaccurate claims – whether in food, retail, manufacturing or professional services – are killing their brands softly with their scams. Cheap prices can fool some of the people some of the time, but after a while you’re just as commoditised as the other pretenders.

On the other hand, premium-priced products that have fraudulent claims tend to fall over a whole lot faster.