“Misleading” labels: BEUC criticizes artisanal marketing, calls for tightened EU rules

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14 Jun 2018 --- The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) has accused some food manufacturers of using “misleading tricks” on labels by using certain words and phrases that could be seen as “deceptive practices.” At the same time, the BEUC is calling for stronger regulation from the government on what can and cannot be on the label in a bid to eliminate some of the practices currently going on across Europe. The new report entitled “Food labels: tricks of the trade” highlights three practices that, according to the BEUC, “sugar-coat the actual quality of foods and drinks.”

They are industrial products being labeled “traditional,” “artisanal”; drinks and dairy with little or no actual fruit displaying fruit pictures and bread, biscuits, pasta, etc. with barely any fiber labeled as “whole grain.”

The BEUC says that a lack of EU rules defining how manufacturers can use such terms is a driving factor behind this and the organization is accusing some manufacturers of taking advantage of these so-called “gray zones” in EU law to make products appear to be of a higher quality than they actually are. 

This comes at a time of rapid growth among artisanal claims and specifically the craft scene across multiple categories including craft beverages, and when functional and botanical ingredients have been dominating new product development in the beverage space recently. 

According to data from Innova Market Insights, there has been a 40 percent increase in CAGR in craft food and beverage launches tracked by big companies (2011-2016). There has also been a 22 percent increase in CAGR craft food and beverage launches tracked from small/medium sized companies (2011-2016).

The way consumers interpret products and view ingredients has much to do with the label and there are many food and beverage categories, including the rising craft beer movement where a lot of attention is drawn to using “artisanal, “authentic” and “natural” manufacturing. 

The BEUC report also comes at a time when the food market is trending away from very large mega-brands, as evidenced in a recent Innova Market Insights report “‘Artisan’ – Heroes, or Hype,” which explores this theme. 

“Within the marketing vocabulary, targeting specific types of demand means that ‘free from,’ ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ and ‘healthy’ have joined ‘low fat,’ ‘farm’ and ‘low calorie’ as promises which appeal to groups that are believed to be especially loyal, once they commit to a brand,” the report says. 

“But if big is not good, perhaps it is better to present yourself as small: create a small sub-operation which is distinct from the parent company, which does not refer to the relationship in its brands or its website. Their story is more credible whether about founders, or suppliers, or products, which focus on bespoke, or artisan, or anti-establishment credentials.”

Talking about smaller producers who tend to create new and unusual products for a small or local market, the Innova Market Insights report says that there is a “hype element” to consider. 

“As we have seen, not every company that claims to be small and craft-based is either. Brands may reference craft or artisanal qualities without being genuinely specialist: there are a number of brands that have claimed a connection with farms that do not exist, for example, ‘Woodside Farms’ from Tesco, and these are already under attack in Europe.”

Click to Enlarge
Tesco used the “Woodside Farms” on its value pork range
for several years prompting a genuine farm called
“Woodside Farm” to threaten legal action.

“Brands that dress in the clothing of microbreweries are under attack in the US, including Walmarts’ ‘Trouble Brewing’ brands. In Europe, they include Meantime Brewery, bought by SABMiller and sold on to Asahi. 

Some of the major UK supermarkets including Tesco, Aldi, Asda and Lidl, came under fire late last year when food charity Feedback claimed they were misleading shoppers. 

The retailers were urged to stop using “fake farm” branding on their own-brand meat products. One example was Tesco using “Woodside Farms” on its value pork range for several years prompting a genuine farm called “Woodside Farm” to threaten legal action. 

Call for more honesty 
According to BEUC the problem with “misleading” label claims mainly stems from a lack of EU rules defining in which cases manufacturers can use certain terms. BEUC has set out recommendations for the EU institutions to make food labels more honest.

“It is striking that a ‘pineapple & coconut’ drink can be made up of less than one-third of these fruits. Or that breadcrumbs labeled ‘grandmother-style’ contain industrial ingredients. Still, these are the kinds of misleading labeling practices that consumer organizations have repeatedly found across Europe,” Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC says.

“Surveys in Germany and the Netherlands show that more than 80 percent of consumers do not trust food labels, and this report proves they have good reasons. Pressure from our member organizations has led some manufacturers to make their packaging more honest. But the EU institutions and member states also need to step up their game.”

“The EU law clearly states that food labeling and packaging should “not mislead the consumer.” However, manufacturers have been taking advantage of gray zones in the EU law to make their products look like they are better quality than they are. It is urgent that the EU institutions come up with a recipe to end those deceptive practices and that member states make sure food makers comply with such rules.”

What is the BEUC recommending?
- EU definitions of the terms commonly used on labels to market quality aspects, such as “traditional,” “artisanal” or “natural”;
- Minimum levels of whole grain content for “whole grain” claims;
- Minimum content rules for products which highlight on the front of the pack certain ingredients such as fruits;
- The percentage of advertised ingredients (such as fruit) displayed on the front of pack.

Examples used in the BEUC report
The BEUC report details some examples of “misleading labeling” including a “natural turkey fillet” from Norway which contained 53 percent turkey with the remainder made up of chicken and additives. It also cited an artichoke soup from Italy with “natural ingredients” which was just 2.7 percent artichoke. 

Another recent example, not necessarily from the BEUC report, came recently when the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) told Pret A Manger it could no longer claim some of its food is “natural” because it contained E-number. 

The theme of “disingenuous branding” is of paramount importance to food manufacturers who will likely be watching closely as this new report lobbies for changes to EU rules, particularly at a time when consumers are looking to the label for more information about “artisanal,” “handmade,” “authentic” and “craft” claims.

By Gaynor Selby

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