Meat co-op hit by consumer warning

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Norway’s consumer protection authority has warned the country’s largest meat and poultry producer and market regulator, Nortura, that it appears to have violated marketing laws. It doesn’t believe Nortura can or should claim in its advertising that its meat comes only from pigs who’ve been well-treated. 

Ads quickly placed by the farmer-owned Norwegian meat co-op Gilde have sparked complaints that they’re misleading, along with a sharp response from Norway consumer protection authority. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“We doubt that Gilde (the meat division of Nortura) can document that all of their pigs have been treated well,” Elisabeth Haugseth, director of the consumer authority (Forbruker-tilsynet) told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday. “We therefore believe Nortura has broken marketing laws.”

The authority, after receiving complaints from more than 100 consumers, has thus sent a letter to Nortura that warns of pending charges and possible fines. The move comes after Nortura ran full-page ads in major newspapers last week claiming that if Gilde’s name is on a package of meat, “you can be sure that the meat is always Norwegian and that the animal had a good life.”

Gilde ran its first batch of ads the day after state broadcaster NRK’s investigatory program Brennpunkt ran a shocking documentary about animal abuse by Norwegian farmers in the pork business. An undercover reporter using a hidden camera showed sows and pigs held in filthy and unsuitable conditions in Norwegian barns, along with farmers leaving sick and injured animals to die instead of calling veterinarians, or even banging young pigs’ heads against concrete walls to kill them in the most economic manner. Other video showed screaming pigs being pulled by their tails and ears, and castrated without the use of any antisthetic.

Video of other badly treated pigs was released by Mattilsynet last year, after 73 percent of their inspections revealed violations of animal welfare. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Nortura itself announced before the documentary ran that it was reporting one of its suppliers to the police, even though it claimed in its initial ad that “Norway has today perhaps the world’s healthiest pigs … thanks to restrictive use of antibiotics, good breeding procedures and the Norwegian farmer.” The documentary, however, reported that all of the 13 farmers visited badly treated their animals, while inspections by Norway’s food safety authority Mattilsynet found violations at as many as 73 percent of farms visited.

Nortura’s ads for Gilde in major newspapers including DN, Aftenposten, VG, Dagbladet, Adresseavisen in Trondheim, Bergens Tidende and Fædrelandsvennen in Kristiansand sparked immediate criticism from the public. In addition to those complaining directly to the consumer authority, others wrote letters to the editors of newspapers that printed Nortura’s ads. “Do you print whatever you get?” chided one reader, economist Vidar Wie Østlie, in Aftenposten. He characterized Gilde’s ad as “pure disinformation.” Others claimed Gilde was resorting to “the same old fiction” that the meat industry is under control, and that the ad wrongly suggests Gilde can all but guarantee that its suppliers treat their animals well.

Two researchers at the University of Oslo, Kristian Bjørkdal and Karen Lykke Syse, also wrote a commentary in DN headlined “Bullshit about pigs.” It noted how Norwegian farmers and the meat industry work hard to get consumers to trust them, “but the consumers should stop doing that” because animal welfare in Norway isn’t nearly as “world class” as the industry claims.

This is the image of the pork industry that Norway’s largest farming organization perfers to present. Consumers may not believe it anymore. PHOTO: Norsk Bondelaget

“The meat industry has a well-developed PR apparatus that knows how to react when its reputation appears threatened,” they wrote. Despite Gilde’s claims that “if standards for animal welfare aren’t met, suppliers can’t deliver meat to Gilde,” the two researchers cited Mattilsynet’s findings and how the meat industry regularly “bullshits,” by not exactly lying but not presenting what’s true. They pointed out how Norway’s meat industry reacts to reports of animal abuse as “unique,” or simply “animal or personal tragedies.” They can thus try to free themselves of any suspicion of systematic flaws. The widespread violations found by inspectors, however, suggest problems are systematic indeed, while officials at the agriculture ministry worry about a “bad culture” among those raising pork.

Nortura’s decision to report one of its suppliers to police reveals that it has received animals from at least one abusive farmer, even though its ads suggest otherwise. The researchers contend the police report also amounts to a “symbolic act” directed at showing how Nortura is taking steps  to punish a questionable supplier.

Nortura seemed to respond defensively to all the criticism and complaints over its first ads by running a second ad that read “All animals shall have good lives. Period.” It didn’t use any photos of animals like in the first ad, but claimed that its message should be “crystal clear.” It then repeated that “if Gilde is on the package,” consumers can be assured the meat comes from well-treated animals. That’s what the consumer authority now finds hard to believe.

Eskil Pedersen, the former head of the Labour Party’s youth organization who now works as communications director at Nortura, told DN that the meat co-op’s intention was to make it “very clear” that it thinks it’s ensuring good animal welfare, and that there will be “consequences when we discover violations.” He said Nortura officials “will now have a meeting” with the consumer authority to say why they think Gilde and Nortura do a good job “and we will of course formally answer” the authority’s letter. He had no further comment, saying Gilde and Nortura wanted to respond to the authorities first.

Norway’s agriculture ministry, now headed by Olaug Bollestad of the Christian Democrats who have long supported farmers and the state financial assistance they regularly receive, called in meat producers and farmers’ representatives this week to both reprimand them and announce that surveillance cameras will be installed at slaughter houses in Norway.

“We must be able to have confidence that the pork industry is serious about animal welfare,” Bollestad told reporters. “I will follow this up.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund