Catering To Consumers' Demand For Meaningful Clean Labels

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Consumers today are demanding for cleaner labels, but what is meant by that, what do consumers expect, and how can manufacturers cater to this demand? By Donna Richardson, PR and public affairs manager, Aquaculture Stewardship Council (Contractor)

Consumers in Asia are putting more demand on manufacturers to increase quality standards, triggering a trend for transparency within the food industry. As they become more concerned with where their food is sourced, the need for clear information, including labels, sustainability claims and eco-signs, is growing.

The new trends in labels and packaging are a response to these consumers and their desire for straightforward information about what they eat. Packaging now lists exactly what ingredients are contained in the product, including where the ingredients originate from, and aim to provide a clear, complete and accurate description of the package contents.

Going Visibly ‘Clearer’

James Palinsad

In recent years, the food industry has begun using words such as “organic”, “sustainable” and other claims in an effort to further reassure consumers about the provenance of their products. However, despite the fact that these ‘clean labels’ are appealing to consumers, there is considerable doubt that most people actually know what these labels mean. There is also some confusion on what information, beyond the basic ingredients, a buyer can, or should, be able to find on a label.

Most consumers feel that nutritional information is important and have grown accustomed to seeing labels that show calories and ingredients on packaging. In the case of fresh food labelled for sale in markets, the customer may also expect to find information about the country and method of production, the ‘sell by’ date and information about how the product has been handled throughout the supply chain.

Beyond these basics, logos and eco-labels are the most recognisable forms of sustainability claims. They evolved as a market response to the need for effective labels for consumer and are a tool used by many standards systems to help consumers identify products that comply with environmental and social criteria.

In many markets, they are the component most trusted by consumers alongside sustainability claims, which are effectively messages that promote a product or a process. Such claims consist of a combination of a logo, a text claim and access to further information, in addition to the mandatory requirements of food labelling which may vary based on region and according to applicable regulations.

Credibility For Claims

Standards organisations such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) have labels that can offer consumers extra peace of mind when it comes to buying seafood. An independent, international organisation, the ASC aims to transform the aquaculture industry to a higher standard through a global certification and labelling programme.

Their standards focus on good management practices covering the conservation and quality of water resources, no misuse of antibiotics, minimising escapes as well as compliance with strict feed requirements and social responsibilities. The certification system meets international codes of good conduct, including FAO Guidelines for eco-labelling and ISEAL Standard Setting Codes.

Farms voluntarily apply for the certification programme, and if they pass a stringent assessment process, they sell their products as ASC certified. However, to credibly use the council’s logo, systems must be in place to ensure traceability. Therefore a separate assessment for a Chain of Custody certification may be necessary to guarantee that the product was produced in compliance with the council’s standards for responsible aquaculture.

Empowering Consumers With Knowledge

The certifications and labels that manufacturers can use both anticipate and respond to consumer demand by providing them as much information as possible. Because transparency is the foundation of the programme’s process, the label provides a high level of access to information about certified fish. Seafood bearing this label is fully traceable throughout the supply chain, so consumers can follow their fish from its point of origin to the point of purchase.

Traceability is a key component of transparency, but regulations governing food traceability vary from country to country. However, a global traceability standard was built into the ASC certifications at their inception. Certified products must not be mixed with non-certified seafood at any time. These security protocols also include strict rules about the origin of the ingredients, the manufacturing process and the product’s distribution, and the way this information is communicated along the supply chain.

However, global certification models can only work if supply chain matters, such as the reach of certification agencies and cultural barriers in countries where farms are present, have been taken into account. Understanding and anticipating such complexities is an important aspect of maintaining an effective label and can be key to helping consumers make choices that positively influence the marketplace.

Consumers are able to make informed choices about their seafood purchases based on the labels, claims or logos present on them. Once certified, these allow producers and retailers to show their customers that the product originates from a responsible source.

The logo is important to the efforts of standards organisations because consumer choice has a huge impact on our marine environment. Rigorously certified products bearing meaningful labels allow the buyer to support farmers who share their values and gives them confidence that their purchase makes a positive contribution to the health of our oceans, the local ecosystems and workers’ rights. Some certifications, such as that by ASC, also shows the programme’s pledge for commitment to reducing the environmental and social impacts of aquaculture, factors vital to supporting future global food security.

Furthermore, companies have many reasons to participate in the scheme. Businesses benefit from the assurances given to their customers that the products are sourced from responsible farms thus putting pressure on manufacturers and retailers to source responsibly.

It is easy to claim a product is responsibly produced, but it is important that the public is able to ask some questions to test this claim. The International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL), the global association for sustainability standards and labels, asserts that claims must meet the Five Universal Truths; namely, that they are clear, accurate and relevant, and backed up by systems that are transparent and robust. They have also developed a tool called ‘Challenge the Label’ to help businesses who encounter sustainability labels test the credibility of the claim.

Rising Demand Across Asia

The rising consumer demand to understand where their food comes from is reflected in the increased appetite for labelled products. Clean labels and meaningful certifications, including ASC Standards, are present throughout Asia, and they give consumers in the region and across the world confidence they are buying responsibly produced foods and other goods.

In China, consumers can buy a wide variety of ASC certified products for use at home, and this list of products is growing rapidly as more companies commit to the certification programme.

Aeon, one of the largest retailers in Japan, has made a significant commitment to sourcing responsibly produced seafood. It was the first retailer in that country to offer customers ASC certified shrimp and also sells certified pangasius and salmon. The retailer has made a sustained commitment to further expand their range of responsibly produced seafood in the future.

The desire for certified products is also seen at the farm level. The seafood for purchase in stores across the region are frequently sourced at one of the growing number of certified farms across the Asia. In the case of Aeon, the certified shrimp sold in their store comes from CP Vietnam, an ASC certified farm based in the An Giang province of Vietnam.

These examples are but a few in a broader movement. It is quite clear that the interest in clean labels is no trend; what we are seeing now is the beginning of a shift in how consumers make choices about fundamental matters that are important to their health, their families, the community and the environment.