Blimey! There’s horse in my wors and kangaroo in my kebab – what does the Consumer Protection Act say?

A month ago we were smugly reading about horsemeat in supermarket food in Europe, then we discovered we were just as bad, with water buffalo, kangaroo, donkey, goat, mountain zebra (on the endangered list) all found in products sold in our supermarkets. We also had undisclosed meats (such as pork when the label said chicken) and preservatives not disclosed on the label.  Such was the outcry that Minister Davies ordered an enquiry into the scandal. 

A lesson here for businesses 

The resultant adverse publicity for meat suppliers and retailers confirms once again the need for any and all businesses involved in the supply chain of food products to the public – including producers, importers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers – to understand their obligations in terms of the Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”).

What does the CPA say? 

In terms of labels the Act states that no person may “knowingly apply to any goods a trade description that is likely to mislead the consumer” and there is similar wording in relation to the advertising and marketing of products. Clearly, there is a contravention of the CPA, but only if the business in question acts “knowingly”.

The CPA empowers courts to order suppliers to stop any practices such as incorrectly labelling meat.  It is heartening to see that in most cases where incorrect labelling was pointed out to retailers, the response was positive, investigations were made and any misleading packaging was withdrawn and corrected.

Can the consumer claim for damages? 

Consumers:  you have strong rights under the CPA, learn about them and enforce them!  But as to whether or not the CPA will give you a damages claim when you find out you have been duped by false labelling, the answer is unfortunately likely to be no as kangaroo, water buffalo and donkey are not actually harmful to your health. The CPA allows the courts to refund consumers the purchase price and any related “losses and expenses” – but to award damages only for any harm actually sustained by consumers. Perhaps a consumer suffering emotional shock on finding out that he/she has eaten something in contravention of a religious or moral requirement will test the legal waters in that regard, but it seems unlikely.

All in all an embarrassing scandal for those in the meat industry but the fact there have been efforts by suppliers to remedy the situation, shows at least that the CPA is having an impact.

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