Clarifying What We’re Buying

Discussion
Jul 28, 2008

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Partner, Fine Food Network

As language and the meaning of words change, so too must food labels if they are to deliver the clarity of information consumers require. New guidance recently released by the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has addressed this issue. The agency has specifically looked at ways to agree on meanings for terms such as “fresh,” “natural” and “pure” in order to help manufacturers and retailers help shoppers.

After its Food Advisory Committee found, in 2002, that some terms were being misused so that messages were too far-removed from “their generally accepted meanings,” the FSA issued guidelines. They have not been revised since then.

Food & Drink Europe quoted Stephen Pugh, head of the Food Labeling Branch at the FSA, as saying, “Marketing terms are useful to enable industry to differentiate their products but need to be used in a way that is meaningful to consumers. In our guidance, developed with consumer organizations, industry and enforcement bodies, we have suggested the conditions when certain marketing terms can be used. These conditions reflect current consumer understanding and perceptions of these terms.”

As we discussed on RetailWire in May (Consumers
Buy Green. Do They Understand It?
), research firm Buzzback found that even though consumers saw the environment
as one of the day’s most important issues, only about one-third of those interviewed
were “familiar” or “very familiar” with the term “sustainable.” Lynn Dornblaser,
director of CPG trend insight at Mintel, also indicated a mismatch between
consumers’ desire for green products and their degree of knowledge.

The FSA’s new guidelines aim to eliminate such problems on food products by ensuring that consumers understand the marketing terms manufacturers and retailers use, recommending against using words for their emotive appeal, for example.

Particular points that should be considered include labeling and advertising food without deceit so that shoppers can make informed choices; offering sufficient information to justify any claims made; allowing for fair comparison and competition between products, sectors and companies and, finally, thinking in terms of what an “average” consumer is likely to find understandable and unambiguous.

Discussion question: Do you think greater clarification around many health & wellness terms are necessary or do such recommendations verge on the pedantic? How much value does it provide to consumers? How will clearer terms ultimately impact sales?

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11 Comments on "Clarifying What We’re Buying"


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Mark Burr
Guest
13 years 9 months ago
My daughter has has spent the summer working in a rather unique and exceptional retail store. The diversity of both the trade and products has fascinated her. One of the most interesting, if not humorous, comments she made after work one day was “Dad, can you believe we sell ‘organic dirt’?” We laughed a bit at the seeming contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, it led to a great discussion about the terms of the industry. None of these terms, like fresh, healthy, organic, etc, are exactly clear. In many ways, they are in fact misleading, if not very misleading. As products and marketing evolves through this trend, I am sure that clarification is in order and potentially in need of mandate. While I am never in favor of regulation, retail has never been famous for regulating itself. I fear that exploitation of the marketing potential to an uneducated and eagerly health conscious market will lead to regulation that is likely much needed. The only problem with that is, regulation isn’t always a positive thing. Yet, when… Read more »
Max Goldberg
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Greater clarification is necessary. Consumers are bombarded with advertising messages and, as studies have shown, are tuning those messages out. At the same time, consumers want more information to make educated decisions. As marketers co-opt words like “natural,” “green,” “healthy,” etc, consumers don’t know who to trust. Clear, common definitions will be beneficial to consumers and ultimately to manufacturers.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
13 years 9 months ago

Specificity and Standardization in labeling are equally important for both consumers and Manufacturers/Retailers. Consumers need clarity around product offers and claims in order to make the most educated consumption decisions. Manufacturers & Retailers must provide clarity and standardization if they are to gain the consumers trust and product loyalty.

It is best for the industry to build and maintains such standards rather than to wait for the Government to mandate them. If they do this the cost to them, and the consumer, will be much higher.

Action is needed to ensure the longevity of the “organic” movement. It is not unreasonable to expect to see progress in this area initiated by the Retailers, as the largest are mostly global companies. Some of these same companies just recently cooperated to bring the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Standards (which originated in Europe) to the USA. I would look to see more of this type of cooperation across many segments of the industry, including labeling, in the near future.

Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
Guest
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
13 years 9 months ago

Greater clarification around many health & wellness terms as they appear on food labels is necessary. Having “Official” definitions of terms such as fresh, natural, etc. will be of great service to consumers. It will also result in establishing certain standards of health & wellness items. For example, if fresh means any item produced and marketed within certain time frame, then by virtue of having to meet this “window” a certain standard is established, and the same goes for natural, pure, etc.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

I’m of two minds–I don’t like the government dictating to manufacturers, preferring to put the onus on the consumer (a child of the 60s, I guess). On the other hand, when fresh isn’t fresh, lite isn’t lite, natural isn’t natural, etc, then the meaning of the terms gets lost. As marketers, if we can’t be trusted by our consumers, then the potency of our marketing actions will be diminished. It would be nice if the industry(ies) agreed on definitions themselves and stuck to them.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
13 years 9 months ago
Doctor Pedantic in ‘da house. Give customers everything you have in scientific language and let them sort it out. If they’re unable to get it or Google it, they should go back to school. Ignorance (which is lack of knowledge, not stupidity) should never be the manufacturer’s fault. Idiocy, though, is another matter altogether. And regarding aggressive/defensive idiocy, Bill Walsh said it best: “The worst thing in a locker room is a dumb guy who thinks he’s smart.” In the case of the apple preservative Alar, for example, a warning that “a quantity of Alar capable of killing 1,000 humans will kill a mouse, as will the same quantity of any other food product known to man,” might have been helpful. Another warning, such as “The elimination of DDT as an insecticide will enable the deaths of hundreds of thousands worldwide from malaria” would also have been instructive. Bottom-line, we tend to major on the minors. Trans-fats, trans-fats, trans-fats. Red dyes number 2 and 40. Alar. DDT. None have been proven to be problematic in… Read more »
Steve Bramhall
Guest
Steve Bramhall
13 years 9 months ago

I am reminded of a story I once heard some years ago concerning a TV program that tracked the supply chain of fresh prawns back from a high-end UK retailer to the fishermen. That ‘fresh prawn’ was something like 6 to 9 weeks old when it went on sale. I absolutely agree that the consumer is potentially mislead, unclear and unknowing with the lack of honest standardisation.

Giacinta Shidler
Guest
Giacinta Shidler
13 years 9 months ago

Not only do the definitions of terms vary in the industry but different people will have different expectations of these terms. Consumers get a psychological boost from buying a product that is “natural” or “pure” without really knowing whether it is or not, or what that even means. They’re nice words that make you feel good, but entirely non-specific.

Also, is a product suddenly not “pure” when it is 94% pure and the cut-off is 95% to earn a “pure” label? If the industry insists on further labeling regulation, I would suggest sticking to specific terms – pesticide-free, preservative-free, hormone-free, and so on. These give a much more specific idea of the qualities of the product. Leave “natural” and “pure” alone.

Dan Nelson
Guest
Dan Nelson
13 years 9 months ago

Without a doubt, there are many “marketing terms” used in labeling that can be misleading to shoppers. Labeling should be clarified and more closely monitored to help ensure consumers are clear on what products really contain and offer. Europe seems to be able to employ greater, more effective standards than we can here in the US, whether it centers on “green terminology” or labeling on food standards. Multiple countries are involved and yet they do have more clarity in labeling.

I’m not certain if government mandates are needed, but I do feel we would all be better off if the standards determined were more clearly monitored and enforced.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
13 years 9 months ago

Healthy living is such a huge driver that I think customers would welcome more specific labeling. What I’m afraid of is that they may not like what they see. My suggestion is an international body that governs organic certification. One entity with one label that the customer can easily identify with.

Mark Lilien
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Maybe all the print on each food label should be the same size, so folks would see the ingredients as easily as the hype. Why not require all food processors to put the interiors of their facilities on internet video, so everyone could see their procedures, cleanliness, staff treatment, etc.? And will proof be required for those fraudulent nutraceutical ads? Know how many municipalities require inspection reports to be posted? Why aren’t food processors required to post their inspection results on the internet?

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