The Right to Food

Ian Jarratt from the Queensland Consumers Association: "Consumer associations should be involved in decision-making about all aspects of the transformation of agrifood systems"

Experts' corner - 22.06.2022

Brisbane, Queensland - Consumer organizations the world over are having significant impact upon the realization of food rights at local, national, regional or even global level. Their work involves different areas, including food safety, nutrition, fair prices, sustainable agriculture, food loss and waste, health and wellbeing, marketing and labelling, to name just a few.

In this interview, Ian Jarratt from the Queensland Consumer Association (QCA)​ explains why food transparency and the provision of effective pricing per unit of measure, usually referred to as unit pricing (UP), matter. He also provides recommendations on how to support consumers to make more informed choice and presents an overview on the global status of the UP. He offers his insight based on concrete examples and his experience for almost 20 years in Australia and overseas. 


Overview of Queensland Consumer Association (QCA)

QCA has a long history of advocating for the improvement of food price transparency and informed choice for consumers through the provision of prices per unit of measure. Can you please tell us about the kind of work QCA does, and describe specific actions taken in this regard?

Ian Jarratt: Queensland Consumers Association (QCA) is a small consumer organization established over 40 years ago to advance the interests of consumers in Queensland, Australia. All QCA’s work is done by its members on a voluntary basis. QCA works on a range of consumer issues, usually in conjunction with other consumer and community organizations, and is a member of the Consumers Federation of Australia - which is member of Consumers International.

QCA’s advocacy for Australian grocery retailers to provide effective pricing per unit of measure (UP) for pre-packaged products started in 2004. Previous attempts by consumer organizations to achieve this had been unsuccessful due to retailer opposition and the lack of reliable information about the benefits obtained from UP in other countries.

"Previous attempts by consumer organizations 
had been unsuccessful  due to retailer opposition
and the lack of reliable information
about the benefits obtained from UP in other countries"
 

In 2007, a QCA member carried out a study on the provision of UP for pre-packaged products in the USA, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom, which showed it could be beneficial for consumers and economies by significantly increasing informed consumer choice.

QCA publicised the results widely and campaigned for a national compulsory UP system for pre-packaged products. This was recommended in 2008 by a national inquiry into grocery prices and national legislation was implemented in 2009.

Since then, QCA has encouraged consumer organizations around the world to give higher priority to the provision of effective UP, provided UP information and advice, and assisted with submissions to governments.

QCA has also participated in the development of an international standard (ISO 21041:2018 Guidance on unit pricing) and the USA’s National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Best Practice Guidelines on Unit Pricing. QCA continues to increase awareness and use of UP by Australian consumers and to advocate for improvements to the national grocery UP system, including its extension to other products and retailers.

Impact of food price transparency and UP on the right to food

Shortages of food supply and rising prices threaten enjoyment of the right to food, but the mitigating effects of effective price transparency, and particularly of UP, are often overlooked. Can you explain why facilitating food price transparency is relevant to consumers´ right to food?

Ian Jarratt: Food price transparency is extremely relevant to consumers’ right to food. It ensures that reliable information reaches all consumers, helping them to make informed choices, to budget, monitor and compare prices, and get the best value for money. It also increases accountability and competition in the supply chain, and can enable consumers to substantially reduce the amount spent on food or get more or different food for the same expenditure. It is particularly helpful for consumers on a tight budget, more vulnerable consumers or those who are unable to buy other essentials due to the amount they spend on food.

"Food price transparency ensures that
reliable information reaches all consumers,
helping them tomake informed choices,
to budget, monitor and compare prices,
and get the best value for money"
 

A range of measures can facilitate food price transparency, including requiring that retail selling prices are displayed, accurate and not misleading, and show the total final price the consumer will have to pay.

Requiring the provision of effective UP is also a very simple, low cost and extremely successful way to facilitate price transparency. Unit prices vary greatly and help consumers to compare many types of value, including between package sizes, brands, types of packaging, packaged and non-packaged items, products sold in different forms (such as fresh, frozen and canned), substitute/alternative products, and special offers and regular prices. UP also helps consumers to identify food price rises, and increases caused by reductions in package size (shrinkflation). Ultimately, it can support broader consumer agency and participation, by heightening awareness of the cost of their food basket and the importance of clear food labels.

 "Requiring the provision of effective UP
is also a very simple, low cost and extremely
successful way to facilitate price transparency"
 

The unit prie around the globe

The requirement to provide UP for pre-packaged products is quite recent. How has it evolved over the years, which have been the drivers for its provision and what is its current global status?

Ian Jarratt: Foods and other products sold loose from bulk (not pre-packaged) are priced mainly in terms of a unit of measurement and this type of UP is usually regulated, often via weights and measures legislation. However, this is not the case for pre-packaged products.

Voluntary provision of UP for pre-packaged grocery products began first in the USA in the 1960s. At that time, the supply and use of packaged food products was expanding rapidly and consumers and governments were concerned about inadequate price transparency. So, to avoid package sizes being regulated, retailers agreed to provide UP voluntarily in addition to the selling price. However, the extent and quality of the UP provided was often inadequate.

Therefore, in the 1970s, primarily to help reduce the cost of living pressures on consumers caused by the 1973 energy crisis, a few states in the USA made provision of UP for pre-packaged products compulsory for some grocery retailers. They also prescribed in detail how UP should be displayed and the units of measure to be used. Japan and Sweden also introduced mandatory provision during that period.

Later, mandatory provision became a requirement in other Scandinavian countries and in 1998 a European Economic Community Directive required its provision in-store and online in all member countries. Since then, several countries in Latin America have also made provision mandatory, as have Switzerland, Quebec province in Canada, Australia and Turkey. In April 2022, India also began to require the provision of UP (but only on packages) and New Zealand will do so soon.

However, in most countries retailers are not required to provide UP for pre-packaged grocery products and do not do so voluntarily.

Challenges and guidance

As we have seen, UP provision is mandatory in some countries, but sometimes it is not as effective as it could or should be. Which problems have you identified in the way it is provided, and which steps do you recommend taking in order to achieve its successful provision and use?  

Ian Jarratt: For food and other products sold loose, the usefulness of the UP provided is often substantially reduced, for example by lack of consistency in the units of measure used.

There are also often many problems for consumers with the UP provided for pre-packaged products. These include inadequate prominence and legibility, use of unsuitable and inconsistent units of measure, inconsistency in the units of measure used for pre-packaged products and those sold loose, and non- provision for products in certain situations (such as for special offers, in advertisements, and when sold online).

These problems significantly reduce consumer awareness, confidence in, and use of all types of UP.

Therefore, governments, consumer organizations and retailers should give much greater priority to the provision of UP that is easy for all consumers to notice, read, understand and use. Specifically, governments should recognize the need for comprehensive and effective UP that complies with international standards; consumer organizations should promote awareness and use of UP by consumers; and retailers should acknowledge that the provision of effective UP can increase transparency, consumer satisfaction and loyalty.

"Governments, consumer organizations and retailers
should give much greater priority
to the provision of UP that is easy for all consumers
to notice, read, understand and use"
 

Consumer organizations, important partners in the transformation of agrifood systems

Agrifood systems encompass a wide range of actors. In your opinion, what is the knowledge and experience consumer organizations can bring to the decision-making tables towards the sustainable and inclusive transformation of agrifood systems?

Ian Jarratt: Consumer organizations are the only stakeholders primarily focused on the needs, objectives and values of the users of the products of agrifood systems. They also can, and do, view issues from the perspective of the public interest. Their direct links with millions of consumers enable them to acquire detailed and very useful information about consumer needs or experiences, as well as communicate information to consumers. Therefore, it is essential that they be involved in decision-making about all aspects of the transformation of agrifood systems.

"Consumer organizations are the only stakeholders
primarily focused on the needs, objectives
and values of the users
of the productsof agrifood systems"
 

Consumer organizations are the principal advocates for the provision of effective UP and have made very substantial contributions to the development of standards, guidelines, legislation, etc. They have vital roles to play to secure better and more provision and to increase consumer awareness and use of UP. Without consumer organizations, there would be far less provision of UP.

"Without consumer organizations,
there would be far less provision of UP"
 

Networking, key for the success of consumer organizations

Conversely, in which ways can consumer organizations benefit from engaging with other civil society organizations and other types of actors (such as academia, private sector or government) based on common concerns? And how can FAO assist consumer organizations to meet their goals related to food rights?

Most consumer organizations have very limited resources and individual influence. Therefore, it is essential that they work together, and with other stakeholders, to achieve beneficial consumer outcomes.

QCA works in a variety of ways to help consumer organizations around the world to be aware of the benefits of effective UP and to share information and experiences. This includes participating in Consumer International’s network, making presentations at conferences, and preparing and distributing widely a half-yearly newsletter containing a global update on unit pricing. Consumer organizations from different countries can contribute to this newsletter with their national information.

QCA has also successfully worked with the International Organization for Standardization -ISO (especially its Committee on Consumer Policy - COPOLCO) and advocated to academics on the need for research on several key UP issues.

FAO can assist consumer organizations on food rights by ensuring that consumer organizations are invited, and where necessary supported through knowledge sharing and building, to participate in the development and implementation of policies and practices.


About Ian Jarratt

Ian Jarratt is a retired agricultural economist and policy analyst with a special interest in improving market efficiency and effectiveness by improving the quality and availability of information for consumers. He is a member of the Queensland Consumers Association (QCA).

For nearly 20 years, while in retirement, he has undertaken research and advocacy in Australia and overseas on the provision of the UP of products, especially food and groceries. Ian has experienced the provision of UP in over 20 countries and represented Consumers International on the ISO committee that prepared ISO 21041:2018 Guidance on unit pricing.

In 2010 Ian received the National Consumer Advocate award from the Australian consumer organization CHOICE, and in 2017 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal.

Ian prepares a QCA six-monthly newsletter providing updates on the global status of UP, to which consumer and other organizations can contribute. To contribute or subscribe, you can email Ian at: [email protected].

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