ACCC protects consumers
against false oregano labelling
Dried oregano is a culinary herb sold in supermarkets and
Packages labelled OREGANO should contain 100% oregano,
otherwise the label may be false or misleading and
contravene the Australian Consumer Law (section
The ACCC (the Australian Competition & Consumer
Commission) was alerted to false oregano labelling by
Choice, a consumer advocate group. Their testing revealed
that other ingredients, mainly olive leaves, made up to 50%
of the contents in some packages and containers. Shredded
olive leaves are visually indistinguishable from shredded
oregano leaves in the plastic bag packaging in which oregano
When contacted by the ACCC, some of the sellers and
distributors used the defence: ‘we have been misled by our
suppliers’. That is, they relied upon their suppliers to
supply pure oregano.
But the ACCC was not swayed because a business is
responsible to ensure its products are accurately labelled
under the Australian Consumer Law. And so one after
the other, the sellers and distributors have taken remedial
action and have given court enforceable undertakings to the
ACCC to ensure that their oregano is pure.
In this article we outline the action taken, and the
court enforceable undertakings given, and in one case a
fine, as a guide to what food sellers and distributors might
need to consider in similar circumstances. At the end is a
marketing commentary by Michael Field who looks at the
marketing of oregano through the consumer’s lens.
Action taken by sellers and distributors in response
to concerns raised by the ACCC
This action was taken by the sellers and distributors
when contacted by the ACCC:
- Commissioning their own independent testing of the
- Introducing a testing regime with suppliers to
conduct routine testing
- Removal of the product from the shelves
- Offering refunds or replacement products to
- Placing a notice in store and on its website
apologizing to consumers
- Promising to ensure that all oregano is certified
- Tracing the adulterated batch of the product
- Reviewing its supply chain for all herb and spice
It is important to take prompt and comprehensive action
when contacted by the ACCC.
Small suppliers, namely “G Fresh Oregano Leaves
‘Mediterranean’”, “Master of Spices Oregano Leaves” and
“Spice & Co. Oregano Leaves” took remedial action promptly.
They satisfied the ACCC that they:
- had taken action to ensure they had ceased supply of
oregano products that contained contents other than
oregano leaves; and
- would take steps to confirm the authenticity of
their oregano products for future supply.
Therefore, the ACCC did not request a court enforceable
undertaking from them.
The Section 87B court
enforceable undertakings given
The larger sellers and distributors took the action
described, and at the request of the ACCC, gave section 87
court enforceable undertakings to the ACCC which contained
For a period of three years:
- annually, obtain written evidence from a laboratory,
which confirms that the laboratory has tested one sample
of the product supplied and represented by [the seller]
as only oregano and found that each sample was a product
containing only oregano
- establish and implement a process for annual testing
of the composition of random samples of herb or spice
products supplied by [the seller], other than oregano,
- retain the test results obtained, and if requested,
provide the ACCC with a copy of those test results.
Menora Foods gave an undertaking with these additional
paragraphs, because it had not taken sufficient action to
satisfy the ACCC:
- not represent any of its herb or spice products are
of a standard, quality, value, grade or composition
without a reasonable basis for making such a
- ensure that a practical training course on consumer
law compliance will be provided to all employees whose
duties could result in them being concerned with conduct
that may contravene Part 3-1 of the ACL
- notify retailers and consumers of the alleged
conduct and the resolution agreed with the ACCC.
- publish on Menora’s website a corrective notice.
List of sellers and distributors which have given
court enforceable undertakings
ALDI Foods – ALDI is a supermarket chain with a
sales volume of 126,809 units of its Stonemill branded
oregano in 2015. Tests results indicated a substantial
presence of olive leaves. Its packages were front labelled
‘Oregano’ and back labelled ‘Ingredients: Oregano (100%)’.
The undertaking was given on 8th November 2016.
Menora Foods – Menora is a food marketing and
distribution company with a sales volume of 61,480 units of
oregano in 2015. Test results indicated a substantial
presence of olive leaves. Its packages were front labelled
‘Oregano’, and back labelled in small print: contents
‘oregano, other than possible traces of tree nuts, peanut,
wheat, sesame seeds and soy’. In the undertaking given on
8th November 2016, Menora was allowed to retain its
disclaimer ‘other than traces of …’ on its labelling.
Spencers – Spencers Gourmet Trading is a
distributor with a sales volume of 100,000 units of oregano
in 2015. Test results indicated a substantial presence of
olive leaves. Its packages were front labelled ‘Oregano’.
The undertaking was given on 15th December 2016.
Hoyt’s Food had a more serious contravention. Test
results indicated that its oregano product contained
approximately 50% olive leaf. Its packages were front
labelled “OREGANO LEAVES RUBBED’ and back labelled ‘oregano
has a strong aromatic camphor like scent’.
The ACCC issued an infringement notice upon Hoyt Food
Manufacturing imposing a penalty of $10,800, which was paid.
ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said:
“Suppliers of food products must ensure the accuracy of
representations about the ingredients on labelling and any
“Consumers use labelling on food products to make their
purchasing decisions and are entitled to expect accurate
Refer ACCC Media release: Hoyt's Food pays $10,800
penalty for alleged false and misleading 'Oregano'
The literary use of oregano
Shakespeare used sweet marjoram, a close relative of
oregano, in this clever word play:
LAFEU ‘Twas a good lady: we may pick a thousand salads
ere we light on such another herb.
CLOWN Indeed, sir, she was the sweet marjoram of the
salad, or rather, the herb of grace.
From: All’s Well That Ends Well Act 4 Scene 5
Marketing commentary by
Michael Field from EvettField
Oregano is now a commonly used dry herb in many
Australian pantries. With the rise in popularity of
television cooking shows such as Masterchef and My
Kitchen Rules, the traditional Australian home-cooked
family meal has been upgraded from ‘steak and three veges’
to Masterchef inspired meals such as spanakopita,
hung yoghurt with pine nuts and raisins or grilled
quail with butter roasted cauliflower and red eye gravy
– all of which are Masterchef meals seasoned with
Although our collective culinary palettes and vocabularies
have all been swept up by foodie fever, our capacity as home
cooks to select and evaluate ingredients for quality and
authenticity has not kept pace. We might know our foie gras
from our filo, but the average grocery buyer can’t tell the
difference between oregano leaves and olive leaves
apparently. And according to the suppliers, they can’t
With so many Australians relying on Curtis Stone, George
Calombaris or Matt Preston to tell them what to cook, which
ingredients and brand to buy, and from where, the consumer
has become a sitting duck for product substitution and
The food producers and retailers know if they want to
supercharge their sales and revenues, you just have to get
your ingredient featured in a cooking show or have a
celebrity food blogger extol its virtues as a superfoood and
your revenues will skyrocket. Let’s face it; we wouldn’t be
buying kale, coconut sugar or chia seeds if a celebrity food
blogger hadn’t proclaimed their claimed fat-busting
superpowers as a secret smoothie ingredient.
So what does all this have to do with oregano? The food
producers and retailers including the supermarket chains
know the consumer is largely unsophisticated when it comes
to buying dry herbs and spices. They rely on the brand,
packaging and product information, and trust the
supermarkets and their brand ambassadors to direct them and
assure them of the quality and maintain high standards in
their supply chain.
The claims from the distributor that they ‘had been
misled by their suppliers’ seem to lack substance. Regular
testing of a product for quality and grade, especially a
product that is prone to product substitution, would seem to
be a minimum requirement.
As the ACCC has highlighted, the business is responsible
to ensure its products are accurately labeled under the
Australian Consumer Law. So it seems unusual that the
distributor did not already have their own independent
product testing in place.
ALDI is likely to feel the most pain in this episode as
they have recently had a number of high profile food
complaints and product recalls including claims of maggots
in meat pies and chicken and metal shavings in hot dog
rolls. They have worked hard to win over consumers with an
extensive advertising campaign designed dispel the belief
that their products are only cheaper because the quality is
lower. I am not surprised that they settled quickly. Any
further brand damage linked to quality issues will make
their fight for market share even more difficult. Low prices
with correspondingly low quality is not a compelling value
proposition. Consumers don’t really like taking risks when
buying food for their families.
Finally, the penalty for Hoyts Food Manufacturing appears
inconsequential for what appears to be ongoing consumer
deception, which would likely have netted enormous profits
up the supply chain. The ACCC imposed a penalty of $10,800,
which would likely be a fraction of their advertising
Michael Field is a partner in strategy consulting firm