The truth behind food labels

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Consumer protection

With food scares, health concerns and sustainability issues playing
heavily on consumers' minds - and influencing their shopping habits
- the humble food label has never played a more important role. But
how can consumers be certain that what the label claims is the
truth, and what are the effects of misleading labels on consumer
confidence? asks Chris Jones.

An international survey carried out by nine leading consumer organisations set out to find an answer to these questions - and found that consumers were having an increasingly difficult time discerning between real claims and marketing ploys.

Focusing specifically on so-called 'green' claims (such as natural, bio, organic, animal welfare, traditional farming, etc.), UK-based Consumers International teamed up with eight national consumer protection organisations in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Romania, Slovenia and the US to assess the number, quality and impact of 'self-declared' labelling claims.

The aim was to investigate whether a product's 'green credential' was valid - whether it was actually produced in the sustainable and ethical way that was claimed. The results, claims CI, make for discouraging reading and show that there is a real need for legislation to ensure clear labelling and verified claims.

The eight organisations purchased a list of basic foods, typical of a family's weekly shopping basket, which were then checked and evaluated against the relevant national and international regulations. The survey discovered a proliferation of green and 'eco' claims on different foods, but also that many of the claims were unverified, confusing and misleading.

For example, up to six different logos and wording were found on 25 tins of tuna, each claiming that the tuna was fished without harming dolphins. Terms used included 'dolphin friendly', 'dolphin safe', 'no threat to dolphin species' and 'certified fishing, drift net free' - but there was no assurances or verification to back up any of these claims.

Another example came from eggs. Among the 17 samples surveyed there were a total of six different types of claims relating to animal welfare, including 'free range' and 'free running'. Again, these claims could not be verified, and, worse, were sometimes contradicted by other labelling information.

The use of the word 'bio' was highlighted - an issue which has occupied many fruitless hours among EU officials. In some countries, such as France and Spain, the word 'bio' is used on organic food; in other countries, it has a completely diffent meaning. Even in countries where it is known to stand for 'organic' production, the word can be found on other products - such as French company Danone's famous Bio yoghurts which are not at all produced via organic methods.

"Consumers look to labels, logos and claims to help them choose goods which are produced in a sustainable way,"​ said Bjarne Pedersen, CI's principal policy officer. "These can only be helpful if the claims are valid and trustworthy and do not mislead the consumer."

"This report shows that a large number of different logos and claims are vague, meaningless, non-transparent, lacking standards and third party verification,"​ he added.

The CI report includes twelve recommendations to support consumer rights.

The most important is that labels and claims on food should be clear and unambiguous - where they are not, enforcement action should be undertaken to ensure that they are, CI suggests.

The organisation also recommends that misleading and unsubstantiated images should not be used to convey inappropriate messages, particularly about production methods (pictures of chickens roaming free on boxes of battery-farmed eggs, for example), and that all food standards for food labels and claims should be developed with stakeholder involvement and be publicly available, open and accessible so that consumers can be sure of their validity.

As for explicit claims made on food labels, the organisation suggests that these should be validated by third party verification to ensure consumer confidence.

But claims are not only explicit - many are deliberately vague, too, and these should be clamped down on, CI suggests, pointing out that phrases such as 'meets legally required standards' are being are vague and irrelevant, implying a high level of quality and welfare which may well not be included in the regulations.

CI also had recommendations on product-specific issues, such as tuna, where it called for the development and adoption of a mandatory, harmonised worldwide standard for catching tuna that does not harm dolphins, and organic food, where it suggested the obligatory use of harmonised international organic logos and labels - and an education campaign to explain what the logos mean.

Targeting companies such as Danone which use emotive words as brand names - deliberately or not -CI suggested that the use of terms such as 'natural', 'quality', 'pure', 'fresh' and 'bio' should not be included in trademarks - one of the more controversial recommendations of the report and one which is likely to meet with considerable resistance.

It also suggested that terms such as 'natural', 'eco', 'fresh', 'bio' and 'pure' should be subject to greater international regulation - rather than just the national rules under which most of these terms are currently regulated.

Producers using links with respectable organisations to promote their food should also be required to state the nature of that link, while definitions and accurate explanations of terms for sustainable food production and consumption are also needed, particularly for consumer education and food labelling.

And to help consumers find their way through the minefield of claims and counterclaims, CI recommended that new guidelines for interpreting misleading food claims, words and terms should be drawn up, perhaps based on existing guidelines such as those produced in Denmark.

Finally, CI said that further research was needed to investigate the extent of language and translation problems of food claims, to agree definitions of terms, and to ensure that consumers are not being misled.

Food labelling has perennially been a thorny issue, with standards and requirements differing vastly across the world. The EU, for example, has worked to harmonise rules across the 15 (now 25) member block, but has faced numerous problems of language and interpretation, not to mention resistance from companies (on issues such as brand names, definitions and the sheer cost of changing labels).

CI's suggestions are, therefore, hardly likely to be rushed onto the statute books, but they do highlight the need for much tighter regulation of how products are promoted. How long that is likely to take - and, indeed, if there is a willingness to take action across international boundaries - very much remains to be seen.

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