Labelling Debate: Engaging the public

Richard Lowe: Welcome all of you to our Bpex-sponsored round-table event, covering the topic of labelling. Let's start off with Annie Austin, who has recently completed research at Brook Lyndhurst on the impact of labelling on consumer purchasing habits.

Annie Austin: Labels are used as beacons, and if they cannot be understood and taken in at glance, then it's unlikely they will have any effect on the majority of people. Only when someone identifies a need do they notice that a label is there. So, as a consequence, a label is one of the poorest tools to change behaviour. When people are shopping, they are juggling a massive range of considerations, including appearance, taste and nutritional value. Ethical values, such as animal welfare, are really secondary to these more tangible things. People assume that higher animal welfare equals better-quality food, so animal welfare itself is not the hook that's better health and better taste. In summary, labelling is effective when people are already engaged.

Tom Slay: That's true; you have to keep it simple. We tend to convey the idea of higher welfare using images on-pack. Where, previously, we might have used a picture of a farmer on a pack, which didn't give any understanding of the product, now we have illustrations depending on the system. So on 'Finest' we show a pig outdoors on straw with fields, whereas with 'Standard' it's just a food shot. People who are buying Finest understand welfare and want to buy into that.

Lowe: Eggs have EU regulations, which mandate descriptions of caged, barn-housed, free-range and organic chickens. Would your position be helped if there were more regulations on other species? Then you're effectively making your own benchmarks with other animals.

Slay: The fact that each retailer is making labelling decisions is a real problem at the moment; it's confusing the customer. If you're buying pork from Sainsbury's or from Tesco or from Asda, the customer should be easily able to buy the same.

Lowe: So for you, an extension of the regulations we see in eggs would not be a bad thing?

Slay: So long as the consumer understands and there are four simple, clear systems as with eggs then no.

Austin: It's important also to note that even if people don't go into detailed information behind a higher welfare claim, just the fact that information is available is enough to build up their trust. If they see there is a website they could go to, they don't feel the need to check up everything themselves. There's a widespread feeling that it's somebody's else's responsibility to make sure the animal is okay it's up to the government or retailers to make sure that standards are high enough. People often edit their own choices according to where they shop, because they trust that brand.

Lowe: Have you noticed that shoppers' preferences are evolving over time, that the societal debate over what is important about food whether welfare, sustainability or food miles has changed?

Austin: For sure, green marketing saw a spike in claims in 2007, which really petered out in 2008/09, so that environmental credentials are now linked much more to cost. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaign on free-range chicken had an effect, with a real spike in purchases, but it petered out immediately.

Terry Jones: I met chicken producers in Herefordshire who changed over to free-range and then quickly had to convert back to intensive, because demand had dried up. The campaign was actually hugely damaging and, if it had been done slightly differently, we would be in a very different place today.

Lowe: As you're saying, Terry, there has to be a relation between an increase in the costs of production and a retail price premium. Because if there isn't and there's a disconnect, then the market is broken.

Robert Smith: You cannot dismiss price. The reality is that this is the first thing people look at on a label when they're in-store. There's an element of ethical responsibility in terms of the production system, but is the consumer going to pay for it?

Austin: The issue of price really is key, because it is the primary cue. Consumers use price to make judgements about quality and there's a social stigma around buying the very cheapest. A customer will say: 'I can't always afford the best, but I will go for something in the middle range.'

John Mabb: I'm interested in that comment: is that what they tell you or what they do?

Austin: What they tell us.

Mabb: Because what they tell you and what they do are totally different things.

Mick Sloyan: But if British consumers were concerned about being driven only by price then Aldi, Netto and Lidl would have biggest market share of all.

Smith: No, because you have Sainsbury's economy, and Asda economy, and Tesco economy these all keep Aldi, Lidl and Netto in their place.

Sloyan: But the market is made up of more than just those three. Yes, British consumers are interested in price in fact it may be the primary driver, but it's not the only one.

Austin: The way people make a calculation about value for money is by taking price versus other factors that they're interested in. Price is there, but it's balanced by people's values.

Kate Parkes: If people were only interested in price, then battery eggs would be increasing in sales, but they're constantly going down, even now throughout the recession. Meanwhile sales of free-range are rising.

Zoe Davies: Did you get any idea from the research just what consumers are willing to pay for products? Often, people go into a supermarket with the idea that 'I'm going to have roast chicken tonight, therefore I'm going to buy chicken.' Do they know how much they are willing to pay for that chicken?

Austin: The evidence is that most consumers work in relatives, that when they stand in front of a shelf they weigh things up according to what's in front of them. Chicken is particularly hard to change consumers on, because whereas the difference in price in eggs is not scarily that much, the move from a value chicken is much more.

Smith: There's some quantitative data out there that's irrefutable and that's your sales data at Tesco, Tom that sets out what people are doing.

Lowe: But is some of the rise in free-range egg sales down to retailer choice editing, just as when a retailer stocks all Fairtrade bananas, it's not surprising that Fairtrade sells well.

Parkes: No big supermarket only stocks free-range eggs they still sell barn eggs. Free-range stocking came on the back of increased sales that were already there.

Slay: Yes, for us it's down to the customer. We serve a broad church, so we have a variety of products, which might include different systems. Caged eggs still meet the legislation set by government, so if people want to them, we will sell them.

Mabb: In New Zealand we use free-range fairly extensively; it's a great description of how the extensive farming system works there. We've been around more than 100 years and used to be the only kid on the block in terms of advertising the product, so the core memory of a lot of consumers is very much one of New Zealand. The provenance is key and, fortunately, there are other attributes like wine, tourism, the All Blacks which help us enormously. Go out into the street and ask people to name a country that produces lamb and 85% will say New Zealand.

Lowe: And I guess you're pleased with the way New Zealand lamb is labelled on the fresh product?

Mabb: No we're not actually. We're pretty happy that it says 'New Zealand lamb' on the label, but we're pretty unhappy that the major multiples are not using our New Zealand rosette. We spent mega amounts of money on that marque and, instead, the Red Tractor seems to appear everywhere now.

Smith: We found that provenance is increasingly of interest, but it seems to be that consumers want to know a product is not from a country that they don't associate with food production. They want to know that they're not buying Albanian bacon. Italy, however, or France and Spain they do food, so that equals a big tick.

Austin: Consumers react very positively to transparency of origin, that's true. The key is trust and standards, as people draw close association between British and feeling safe about their food. They feel that they know what British farmers are doing and that, if it's British, then it's a shorter supply chain where there is less room for unknowns and uncertainties.

Sloyan: The intention behind the Pork Task Force was this: more transparent labelling. We brought together processors, local authorities, retailers and the RSPCA to enable this. After looking at research, we realised that people expected the retailer or foodservice operator to know where their meat came from, but that, due to the BSE crisis, a gap in trust had opened up. We felt that consumers wanted to know if a pig was slaughtered and processed in more than one country so it should be stated on the packet. A Danish weaner could be reared in Germany, slaughtered in the Netherlands and sold in the UK, but as long as you have two of those countries 'Dutch bacon from pigs reared in Germany' that at least provides information.

Then we moved on to geographical names. We can all say that Wiltshire curing is only a process but when you see labels saying 'Wiltshire-cured bacon' in 24 point on the front of a pack and 'Origin Country X' on the back in six point, you know somebody is playing a few games. So we said that if it says Wiltshire it doesn't have to come from Wiltshire, but it should at least be of UK origin. No one is stopping anyone from curing pork from anywhere in the world but they should just say so. The voluntary code will be implemented on 1 January, and we have all seven major retailers in the UK signed up, some branded manufacturers and 13 foodservice companies including Whitbread, McDonald's and JD Wetherspoon.

Slay: Do customers mind if a pig has been reared in one country and killed in another?

Sloyan: The view was taken that people wanted to know if there was a movement across borders. Do they want to see the term 'where slaughtered'? Absolutely not. When people are pressed on something as benign as outdoor-reared pork and how long an animal should be kept outside, you can only take them so far and then stop. There's a quote from our research along the lines of 'just give me the romance without the gory bits'.

Ed Bedington: But do we need to push that? Is it fair for consumers to absolve themselves of the reality of what goes on?

Lowe: That's true; issues to do with slaughter may well become more important. The Daily Mail has been running articles like: 'Our kids are being fed halal'; 'The Olympics will all be halal food'. The papers are asking: 'would you believe it, these animals are being dispatched by cutting their throat'. Well how else do they think animals are being killed?

Mabb: This must be the fifth or sixth time this issue has cropped up. It's one of those silly season debates that eventually go away. We issue the usual statement that none of our animals are slaughtered without pre-stunning.

We try to explain to a few zealots that halal doesn't necessarily mean something cruel. One thing consumers do ask is that if we're not worried about halal, why is it not on our labelling? We respond that most of our product is own-label. In fact, during periods when it's not a front-page story in The Express or The Mail we usually have questions in the other direction 'Is your product halal?' 'If it is, how do we know we can eat it?'

Lowe: Is Defra looking to roll out this voluntary code across other sectors? At the moment it's very difficult for local authority enforcement officers to have so much differing information for one meat species versus another.

Sloyan: Certainly they're having a look; they want a voluntary code to be in tune with imminent EU legislation.

Jones: It's clear this is going to require a huge amount of work. I applaud the work that Bpex has been doing in this area, because it's almost a blueprint for what needs happen in other sectors, but it's got to be leadership by government rather than the talk of a few trade associations.

Smith: But it's not just about government. Consumers cannot abrogate responsibility, which at the moment they're being given the opportunity to do. Everyone, including consumers, has a responsibility and it's more than just a label and a website.

Chris Lamb: The role of Change 4 Life [the recent government health campaign] in the current round of cutbacks will be crucial. We talk about the obligation on brands to have higher level of communication and better labelling. That is all well and good, but you've got to communicate. The advantage of Change 4 Life is that it's doing the communicating on behalf of so much nutritional labelling. It has been genuinely helpful to the actions taken by consumers: is chicken healthier than another product? Are legs as good breast? It really helps those interested to decide.

People are comfortable with nutrition because it's something they can relate to: 'Am I slim?' 'Am I fat?' 'Do I want to lose weight?' But something like the environment isn't affecting people today, it's going to affect us somewhere down the line and therefore, people think, 'I'm not sure I want to get that involved in it'. They take actions like changing a lightbulb, but putting environmental claims on a pack of meat is unlikely to have much effect.

Bedington: There might be no consumer engagement at present, but how long will it be before they really take it on board? Because at the moment the majority of messages are saying that meat is bad or we should stop eating meat. Whether consumers think about it or not, if we don't take any steps, we run the risk of consumers thinking that meat is bad for the environment and they won't choose it in future.

Lowe: But it's too much for consumers to get hold of. Take intensive beef production. Black and white calves come off dairy mothers, which means a very low carbon footprint per kilo, because all the carbon costs go towards the milk. But say all that to a consumer and you've lost them after two seconds.

Davies: Things along the chain are changing all the time, so you'd have to change your carbon label on a weekly basis, which is just not going happen. Scientists are still using values to calculate carbon that have very little reflection on what is happening out there. And if you talk sustainability, are you looking at global warming potential or water use or land use? There are so many different things that it's very hard to go down that route and substantiate proper claims on a label.

Sloyan: perhaps we're making a mistake in looking at it in terms of specifics when, as an industry, we should be thinking about acting to create a general sense of trust, with people not knowing everything about where an animal is kept but knowing that the welfare is at an acceptable level, like the environmental performance. Consumers see retailers as having control over the supply process and they want to be able to leave it in their hands so that the label provides reassurance rather than a reason for purchase.