Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
or who guards the guardians?

Possibly half of the Australian population now have access to Smartphones, with 80% of users now estimated to be accessing apps (Marketingmag 2012). In the United States last year, the time spent using apps overtook the time spent connected to internet, possibly indicating a similar trend in Australia. In 2013, Smartphone users were estimated to have downloaded more than 10 million apps with the most popular apps, after games, being tools to help users make decisions, including those involved with shopping. It is becoming common to use Smartphones for product comparison, as consumers seek further information to make informed choices.

In January 2013, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on the ‘most famous food apps’. Most of the apps discussed were restaurant or recipe registries not directly related to food processing or on-farm activities. However, an app called ‘Shop Ethical’ caught the attention of the Australian Farm Institute as it allows users to access information not included on products’ labels which relate directly to farm products.

The Shop Ethical app costs A$4.49 per download and contains information on businesses producing specific items. Once a product is selected the user is given an overall ethical rating for that product, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1:    The Shop Ethical app ratings.

Shop Ethical users don’t have much time to determine whether the reported information is up-to-date or relevant to an actual farm or food processing business. They are likely to just make a decision ‘not to buy’ when they see a big ‘red cross’ compared to a nice ‘green tick’.

Shop Ethical’s company ratings are defined by assigning ‘criticisms’, ‘lesser criticisms’, ‘praise’ and ‘lesser praise’ for ethical factors such as environmental, social, animal welfare and business ethics claims. Apart from the overall ratings, users can click on the company name of the products’ manufacturer to find further detail on the business’s ethical conduct (see Figure 2). Most of the food products rated are packaged or processed foods, including milk, pork, eggs and poultry items. Beef, and fruit and vegetables are not currently rated, presumably as the time and resources needed to rate the large number of individual businesses involved in these product lines would be very complex.

Figure 2

Figure 1:    ‘Lesser criticisms’ ratings.

The product example shown in Figure 2 relates to a bacon brand which received a ‘lesser criticisms’ rating (and a corresponding cross), leading the possible buyer to believe that the branded product is unethical. However, the information used to decide this rating deserves further explanation.

In this case, the app indicates that the business behind the bacon product, was ‘fined for mislabelling’ in 2010. The main issue with this lesser criticism is that it doesn’t say what the company has done or not done to rectify this. The information only assumes that the company will continue to mislabel, and therefore discourages the consumer from purchasing this product.

‘Possible GE (genetically engineered) in brands’ is another criteria used to qualify a product’s ethical rating. This criteria refers directly to the Greenpeace Truefood Guide 2011, and Greenpeace’s claims that the business managing this product also manages brands rated ‘red’ for GE content. The Greenpeace criteria regarding GE content has nothing to do with Australian regulations on genetically modified (GM) content labelling. Australian food manufacturers are required by law to indicate whether the product contains GM contents on the product label. The fact that a company has not disclosed their GE policy to Greenpeace or that their products may contain GE to a certain degree is a matter that concerns the Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand.

Shop Ethical’s guidelines clearly indicate that the information doesn’t relate to the product itself but to the business involved in processing and branding the products. There are obviously no reasons to prevent consumers from accessing this type of information. However, this does raise a few questions along the lines of ‘who guards the guardians.’ The Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Code has a formal consultation process as illustrated by recent discussions over GM and front-of-pack labelling. It took considerable reviews, contributions, audits, meetings and hearings to modify the code and update current food labelling regulations. Smartphone food apps providing information at the point of purchase act almost like a label, but by-pass any rigorous formal scrutiny.

Food apps are a booming business, with great potential for the food and farm sector. There is a risk, however, that an app may take on the defacto role of self-appointed industry watchdog.

Keep up-to-date with discussions of current issues in Australian and international agriculture policy by visiting the Australian Farm Institute’s blog and chat room ‘Ag Forum’.


‘Working up an app-etite’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 2013, available at:

Back to May 2013 Insights contents page. 

Images: Mick Keogh