Paul Wheeler delves into the importance of accurate food labelling for consumer satisfaction and brand loyalty

A huge emphasis is placed on branding in today’s grocery market, with manufacturers investing heavily into the design and marketing message of their product. However, a new online survey conducted by Elementar UK has revealed that consumers are looking for considerably more than just attractive packaging when making purchasing decisions.

Origin matters
The survey revealed that consumers pay close attention to details such as where their food originates from, in addition to its nutritional benefits. Eighty-five per cent of people surveyed check the origin of a food or drink product ‘some’, ‘most’ or ‘all’ of the time. Only 14 per cent said they never check for this information.

For some food and drink products, such as beef and olive oil, it is mandatory for manufacturers to state the origin of the produce. However, the survey indicates that there is demand from consumers to know the origin of all food and drink products.

In recent years, consumers have become increasingly interested and aware of where their food and drink comes from and the conditions in which it is cultivated.

For products with protected or special status, such as protected designation of origin (PDO) products (Champagne and Parmesan cheese, for example), this has always been the case. Their origin is what makes them unique, so labelling generic sparkling wine as Champagne is most certainly going to land a manufacturer in hot water. However, today’s customers are now even interested in knowing the journey that own-brand supermarket meat has made before reaching their plate. It is considered more of a ‘right to know’ than a premium.

There has also been a shift towards homegrown produce in the industry. Many manufacturers now market their products as ‘homegrown’ or ‘grown in Britain’ – it is an attractive marketing message that sells.

Consumer trust
Although legislation exists to protect consumers from incorrect labelling (intentional or accidental), there is more at stake than a fine for manufacturers who fail to comply. Over half (52 per cent) of people surveyed said they would not buy a product again after learning it has been mislabelled.

From nutrition to ethical farming, many consumers want to know exactly what they are putting into their bodies. Furthermore, consumers with allergies and intolerances need to be certain that the labelling of products is accurate. For those with serious allergies, the consequences of incorrect labelling can be life-threatening.

In August 2017, a UK supermarket (only revealed as Supermarket X at the time of writing) made headlines due to a connection being made between an outbreak of Hepatitis E and the consumption of the supermarket’s own-brand pork imported from the EU. In the same month, Tesco announced a large list of products for recall due to incorrect labelling, some of which contained eggs and peanuts that were not declared on the label. Other products that were suspected to contain pieces of glass or metal were also recalled.

HoneyIt is little wonder that consumers struggle to place trust in labelling and the supply chain in general.

A sticky situation
Elementar UK’s survey also revealed that the majority of people surveyed (52 per cent) would not be shocked to learn that some food products in the supermarket are labelled incorrectly. Although many instances of labelling errors are 15accidental, unfortunately food fraud is a cash cow being milked.

The manuka honey scandal that was exposed earlier this year, is a prime example of fraud in the food industry on a large scale. A study by Sunday Times revealed that only 1700 tons of manuka honey is produced in New Zealand annually, yet 10,000 tons of honey products claiming to have manuka properties are sold each year.

The scandal has had a noticeable impact on the public’s interest in the product. Google Trends data demonstrates that, despite steady growth in the number of searches for ‘manuka honey’ in the UK towards the end of 2016, the trend has been reversing this year – indicating that interest in manuka honey has been declining. Although this does not prove it is directly linked to the scandal, the cost of manuka honey and the widespread fraud is bound to deter consumers from buying the product. Using the market figures of manuka honey production, there is a 17 per cent chance that the ‘manuka honey’ purchased by a consumer is genuine. At £55 for a jar, for some it is too much of a gamble to invest in.

Improving labelling accuracy
Obviously not all mislabelling is intentional – mistakes in the manufacturing process are bound to happen. Some manufacturers are now automating labelling to minimise the number of errors and improve efficiency.

Autocoding systems that match date codes and check whether the packaging is correct can also help to reduce the number of product recalls from manufacturers as a result of human error.

The government also needs to ensure that leaving the EU does not result in the UK losing important legislation that is in place to protect consumers. For example, PDO was introduced by the EU, but there is now uncertainty as to what will happen with the legislation post-Brexit. If the government does not introduce a similar piece of legislation for the UK, we could see the emergence of a black market of, say, sparkling wine being labelled as ‘Champagne’. While the idea of cheap ‘Champagne’ may seem initially appealing, there is no reason to believe that any cost-saving through such loopholes would be passed on to the consumer. D

Paul Wheeler is general manager at Elementar, a multinational manufacturer of elemental analysers and isotope ratio mass spectrometers used for analysis of non-metallic elements. Paul graduated from The University of Manchester in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He has worked in the mass spectrometry and elemental analysis industry for 20 years, where he progressed from a technical engineer to general manager. In 2008 he joined Isoprime Ltd., part of the Elementar group, which re-branded to Elementar UK in early 2017.