Survey reveals truth behind food labels

The Swiss are prepared to pay more for higher quality produce where animal rights are respected Keystone

Consumers are frequently confused or misled by labelling on food products, according to a survey conducted by Swiss environmental and consumer groups.

This content was published on November 18, 2003 - 19:11

It found that some products claiming to be of superior quality were often no better than unlabelled alternatives.

The WWF, Swiss Animal Protection and the Swiss Consumers Association said the Swiss were increasingly drawn to organic and fair-trade products. But many well-known quality marks were promising more than they could offer.

The survey evaluated products according to several criteria: respect for the environment, water and climate, as well as respect for animals.

Stars were awarded for how well the products matched up to the promises made on the label.

Top marks

Organic products came out of the survey with the highest marks.

“Organic labels got the most points because they have the highest requirements concerning environmental standards and animal welfare,” Jennifer Zimmermann of WWF told swissinfo.

Max Havelaar, claro fair trade and the Bourgeon label of the Association of Swiss Organic Farmers, Bio Suisse, were among the winners.

But the survey pointed out some confusion surrounding the Naturaplan label of Switzerland’s second supermarket, Coop. Naturaplan products are not necessarily organic.

Quality counts

Swiss consumers are prepared to fork out more for products bearing stamps of quality, the survey found.

“If you look at the numbers of Coop and Migros, you see that the market percentage of labelled goods is rising,” said Zimmermann.

“That shows that consumers want to buy them because they expect goods with a distinctive label to be better than conventional products.”

Although this might be a wrong assumption, the use of quality marks did create competition which was “useful to improve product standards”, said Zimmermann.

One way to bring order to the variety of quality marks would simply be to cut down on the number allowed on the shelves, commented Jacqueline Bachmann of the Swiss Consumers Association.

“We would like to make sure that there is a guarantee that the product is tested from the stable to the table and that the right information is given to consumers so that they are not disappointed,” she told swissinfo.

Europe more or less united

Among Switzerland's neighbours too, there exists multiple product labels tailored to each market.

In Germany for example, there are nine groups producing labelled goods.

A decade ago, the European Union introduced minimum criteria for organic and ecologically-sound products. The regulation led to the creation of a common quality label.

The Swiss are not allowed to sell their products under this label, making it difficult - and costly - for producers to enter the European market.

For the time being, the Swiss domestic market is big enough to host the competing organic and superior labels.

Small print

Ultimately, the key test of a product’s pedigree is not what the label says, but the origin of the product and how it was produced.

“Labels can transfer a lot of information, but the small print detailing where a product comes from or how it was produced still gives better information than labels,” explained Bachmann.

“The law stipulates how you provide such details, while a label is still a mix of communication and marketing from the producers.”

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin and Isobel Leybold

In brief

Three stars went to:
Max Havelaar, claro fair trade, Bourgeon, Bio Engagement Migros, Demeter, Bio Natur Plus.

Two stars went to:
Agri Natura while Coop Naturaplan received two stars for its respect for animals.

One star went to:
Migros-Garantie, Bell Natura, Swiss Prim Gourmet, IP.PI and Dophin Safe.

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