Vital signs: ASA upholds complaints about Fonterra’s misleading claims

Fonterra has been under the pump in recent times due to the steadily rising price of dairy products. But a complainant recently took aim at some of the language used on its website to promote the goodness of dairy. And not even new ambassador Richie McCaw could stop the Advertising Standards Authority from upholding two of the five complaints. 

The complainant, G. Reynolds, believed Fonterra had breached Principle 2, guideline 2(a) of the Code for Advertising Food because some of the nutritional claims about it being a superior
source of calcium and other important nutrients were misleading and unable to be substantiated. 

The claims were: 1) “Dairy has the building blocks for life. Whether we are a toddler or over 50 – we all need it”; 2) “Dairy is an essential food group and a vital component of a balanced, nutritious diet”; 3) “Dairy contains a balance of high quality proteins, carbohydrates and fats that make it an essential part of a balanced diet”; 4) “No other source of calcium can be absorbed as well by the body, the other nutrients in dairy foods help the absorption”; and 5) “[milk]is the richest dietary source of calcium …”

Reynolds said use of the terms “need”, “essential”, and “vital” gave claims 1-3 a character of absolute necessity.

“Needed and essential things are impossible to do without, and vital ones are essential to life. In each case the terms ‘need’, ‘essential’, and ‘vital’ refer to dairy and it is dairy itself that is claimed to be necessary, not just the food group to which it belongs, or the building blocks, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that it contains … Dairy is not needed at any age, and is not essential or vital to a balanced, nutritious diet as claimed.” 

In response, Fonterra agreed to change ‘it’ to ‘them’ to clarify it was referencing the “building blocks of life” rather than dairy in statement one, swapped the words essential for important in statement two and amended statement five to read: “Milk is the richest natural food source of bio-available calcium”. But it didn’t agree with the complainant’s argument, saying the most extreme meaning of the words had been highlighted. 

“It is true and not an exaggeration to say that dairy is a basic or fundamental food group and that dairy is of great importance as a core food group i.e. that it is ‘essential’ and/or ‘vital’. Fonterra has not said that other food groups are not essential or vital.”

While changing the word ‘essential’ to ‘important’ in statement two met the requirements of the Code for Advertising Food, the complaints board said continued use of the word ‘vital’ was still potentially misleading to consumers and upheld the complaint as it was not able to be fully substantiated and could be misleading to the consumer.

The board also said statement four—“no other source of calcium can be absorbed as well by the body”— had not been adequately substantiated by Fonterra and was therefore likely to mislead the consumer. 

  • Check out the full ruling here

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