Consumer assurance schemes have long caused controversy, confusion and trust issues. So are there simply too many, and will increased collaboration or competition help fix the problem?

Britain in the 1980s was a breeding ground for high-profile food scares. Who can forget 1988 when health minister Edwina Currie made her infamous remarks about the rates of salmonella in British eggs? Poultry farmers were enraged. The industry faced bankruptcy. And Currie resigned.

Two years later, and equally infamous agriculture minister John Gummer fed his four-year-old daughter a beefburger live on TV as part of a publicity stunt to assuage growing concerns BSE could infect humans. He was too late though. An EU ban on British beef was already in force, amid sobering images of burning cattle thrown on pyres all over the nightly news.

Something needed to be done. And so a series of farm assurance schemes emerged in the 1990s, intended to restore confidence in home-grown food and drink. By 2000 these had been gathered under the umbrella scheme of Red Tractor, its terribly British logo a comforting emblem of provenance and high standards. 

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A quick guide to 10 leading ethical labelling schemes

Carbon Trust Footprint

Launched: 2001

Mission: ‘To accelerate the move to a sustainable, low carbon economy.’ The trust works with companies to create and certify ‘infrastructure, products and services’ that address the growing ‘scarcity of resources’.

Certification: Companies can apply for certification to reflect that they have ‘taken steps to measure and reduce the resource footprint of [their] product’ in carbon or water, or have even managed to achieve carbon neutral production.

Reach: 25,000 products.


Launched: 1997

Mission: To create ‘a world in which all producers can enjoy secure and sustainable livelihoods, fulfil their potential and decide on their future’.

Certification: The Fairtrade logo, used in 50-plus countries, is a guarantee that a product and its ingredients comply with Fairtrade standards. The two most important of these are: paying the farmer producers a fair wage and an additional ‘premium’ that goes in a communal fund to improve social and economic conditions for the workers.

Reach: 4,500 products.

Good Shopping Guide

Launched: 2001

Mission: The initiative started as an annual reference guide published by The Ethical Company Organisation scrutinising 30,000-plus companies and measuring performance across 17 ethical criteria, from human rights to animal welfare and environmental impact.

Certification: Companies must reach an ethical benchmark (typically the top 33% of any given product sector) following an analysis of their corporate social responsibility records across these 17 criteria.

Reach: 120 brands.

LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming)

Launched: 1991

Mission: ‘To inspire and enable sustainable farming that is prosperous, enriches the environment and engages local communities.’

Certification: Products that carry the LEAF marque have demonstrated sustainable farming techniques by completing a review, implementing an Integrated Farm Management approach and adding a tool that tracks produce across the supply chain, known as the LEAF chain of custody.

Reach: 1,032 companies.

Marine Stewardship Council

Launched: 1998

Mission: To ‘use our eco-label and fishery certification programme to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans by recognising and rewarding sustainable fishing practices’.

Certification: Regardless of size, location or method, fisheries are independently assessed across three main principles: having sustainable fish stocks; minimising environmental impact; and effective fisheries management.

Reach: 296 fisheries.

Rainforest Alliance

Launched: 1986

Mission: To ‘build strong forests, healthy agricultural landscapes, and thriving communities through creative, pragmatic collaboration’.

Certification: Certified farms and farm groups have been independently assessed across 10 key criteria, including efficient farm management, soil erosion, reduced threats to human health, water pollution, waste and protecting wild habitats. All certified products can be traced back to their origin.

Reach: 457 food and beverage products.

Red Tractor

Launched: 2000

Mission: Introduced to avoid growing confusion around fragmented farm assurance schemes in the 1990s, the Red Tractor symbol was introduced to flag up British produce where ‘all stages of the food chain abided by the safe food rules’.

Certification: Products carrying the logo have been checked for ’rigorous production standards (no hormones or antibiotics) with traceable origins, meeting set standards on animal welfare and sustainability. And it must be grown, prepared and packed in the UK.

Reach: 46,000 farms.

RSPCA Assured

Launched: 1994

Mission: ‘Our vision is that all farm animals have a good life and are treated with compassion and respect.’

Basic criteria: To carry the logo, farms or producers must open up sites to a team of assessors and RSPCA farm livestock officers that check welfare meets ‘strict RSPCA welfare standards’. These include animal health, diet, environment and care and includes things like space, light, bedding, transport and humane slaughter.

Reach: 3,000-plus farms.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Launched: 2004

Mission: ‘To transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm.’

Certification: All palm oil suppliers that carry the RSPO logo have been assessed for compliance with ‘legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate and socially beneficial management and operations.’ Criteria are complex but include areas such as commitment to transparency, long-term economic viability and provide fair pay and care for workers.

Reach: 3,000 members.

Soil Association

Launched: 1946

Mission: The charity campaigns for ‘healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.’

Certification: One of four UK bodies to provide ‘organic’ certification, which requires compliance with a legal set of standards. The charity does also offer higher standards that go above and beyond basic compliance, which are set by an independent committee of experts. A blue background on the logo denotes a product has met these higher standards.

Reach: 50,000-plus products.

At least that was the idea. “Unfortunately there has always been a trust issue around Red Tractor from the beginning,” sighs Diana Spellman, managing director of procurement specialists Partners in Purchasing. “People saw the Union Jack and the tractor and immediately - as all consumers do - leapt to the idea that it represented all of the things they wanted to feel secure about.”

But if its (many) critics are to be believed, it never has. A report in 2012 claimed the scheme did ‘little more than meet legal requirements’, allowing certified farmers to ‘mutilate’ animals, tether sheep, and farm ‘zero-grazing cows’. And there have been a number of scandals since to further undermine the tractor’s quality credentials, including food safety breaches at 2 Sisters last year, and an exposé in The Times this summer highlighting an investigation by animal welfare group Animal Equality into breaches at a certified Bedfordshire farm.

Criticism of the scheme - in February, celebrity chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver admitted he refused to feed Red Tractor-assured chicken to his kids - has finally forced the non-profit to rethink its approach. And while details are still vague it has aspirations to address criticism with a tiering system that risks treading on a number of toes and increasing consumer confusion about the myriad accreditation schemes that have grown up in the wake of Red Tractor - all making various assurances around ethics and sustainability.

So, what value do these labels hold for food and drink? And how can they convince their critics?

“We think they’re really valuable,” says Annelie Selander, group sustainability director at Birds Eye, one of the founding members of the Marine Stewardship Council. “We do quite a lot of listening to consumers and know more and more they want to know where their food comes from. They’re really keen on provenance, on transparency and we think this is only going to increase over the next couple of years.”

Research by England Marketing backs that up. According to its 2017 survey, 62% of consumers said how ethically their food was produced was important when it came to perusing aisles, while 58% said the same for traceability. Interestingly though, less than half (47%) cared about these being backed up by assured standards, only 17% ‘very much so’.

So why bother with certification? Why not find other ways to communicate sustainable credentials? “Not everyone will read websites and not all brands will have big budgets to communicate by other means,” says Teapigs co-founder Louise Cheadle. “Having some form of accreditation on-pack is a way in which many consumers can be reassured that the brand is doing the right thing.”

“We know, in this world of increasing pace and complexity and uncertainty, that consumers look for simplicity and transparency and having credible sources to help with that is increasingly important,” adds Selander.

And the most high-profile schemes do still resonate. According to England Marketing, 88% of shoppers recognise the Fairtrade logo, followed by Red Tractor (68%), the Soil Association (34%) and the RSPCA (34%).

“For businesses it’s more important than ever to show they’re doing more than just the bare minimum and Fairtrade, because it’s so well known, gives them a way of showing they’re working toward tackling key sustainability issues at source,” insists Dan Morey, head of innovation and business services at the Fairtrade Foundation.

It isn’t only the end consumers that count either, points out Edward Millard, director for Africa and South Asia at the Rainforest Alliance. “The engagement we have with companies is not all predicated by a logo on pack. If you look at the evidence there’s a larger growth in the purchase of certified commodities than there is in the appearance of logos in the market.

“Plenty of certified commodities don’t actually find their way into packs bearing seals but rather they are fulfilling companies’ commitments to responsible sourcing. By engagement with a credible organisation, companies want to talk about more than just the fact that their chocolate bar contains x% of certified cocoa.”

Then there is the boost certification can provide to international exports, the impetus behind the Irish Origin Green sustainability scheme launched in 2012 after positive research into perceptions of Irish food and drink around the world emerged. Michael Maloney, Bord Bia director, recalls that “it was seen as green and natural but the feedback was also that we would need to be able to prove that. It wasn’t sufficient to say ‘we have little small farms and we’re on the edge of the Atlantic and we’re green, take our word for it’.”

So the body used an existing network of food safety audits to expand data collection to areas such as carbon efficiency on farms, and required companies to set stretching targets on areas such as sourcing, manufacturing and social sustainability. Ninety-two per cent of exported beef and 97% of exported dairy produce now comes from assured farms. “It does help with our credibility,” Maloney adds. “Particularly in countries like China or Korea, where the buyers focus very much on having government endorsement of any product.”

So certification schemes undeniably hold value across the supply chain. But do we need so many? According to Tobias Webb, founder of the Innovation Forum there are around 400 “eco-labels” in the world right now, championing everything from fair pay for farmers, to deforestation, tackling the slave trade and protection for rare rainforest fauna. “Consumers are overwhelmed with information,” he says.

On the one hand this pick ‘n’ mix of certification provides huge choice for both brands and consumers, satisfying an increasingly diverse and in-depth understanding of sustainability. On the other it can be incredibly confusing.

“There are an awful lot of labels on a pack for a shopper to try to understand and most of it is wallpaper when you’re shopping,” admits Clare McDermott, business development director for Soil Association Certification. “It’s more important than ever that there is some clear, recognisable form of labelling for consumers and for people owning these schemes to help the shopper understand what they’re all about.”

Only last year the organic certification body trialled a digitised symbol that could be scanned on a mobile to reveal “exactly what it meant. Where the bacon, for example, had come from and how it was organic, as well as what organic meant.”

In the future this type of easily accessible context to certification “will be more and more important”.

But it’s one approach. Some argue there is also a case for consolidation to address confusion. “I would encourage that,” says Emma Vass, CEO of Clipper Tea and Kallo owner Wessanen UK. “It would be more powerful if we can amplify both the standard and the voice those certifications have.”

In the early days, this wouldn’t have been possible, says Webb, as the end goals of leading certification bodies were too far apart. For instance, while Fairtrade focused on more cash for farmers, the mandate of the Rainforest Alliance was solely on saving the environment. “Profits for farmers are often at odds with sustaining the environment as it’s usually cheaper to chop down forests to plant crops and so the original intentions of these groups was quite different,” says Webb. In some cases, even contradictory. But over time that has changed and “now everyone agrees that poor farmers will cut down forests so we’re trying to work out what the balance of initiatives is that tackles that problem”.

For Webb, the ongoing merger between Rainforest Alliance and Dutch charity UTZ is all “part of a realisation that there are too many schemes doing the same things or similar things”.

Addressing confusion wasn’t the intention but it may be a by-product, concedes Millard. “Once we have that scale of operation we can do a lot of valuable work that improves the lives of millions of smallholder farmers. That was always the motivation, not to demystify the job for consumers, but it’s a welcome benefit if it occurs.”

An overarching government-backed scheme could be another solution, suggests Compassion in World Farming director Nick Palmer. “When we talk to supermarkets they say they honestly don’t really want to bother with 15 different schemes, all of which have to be worked out and monitored. They’d prefer a standard government-approved scheme where people could see if a product is high-quality, medium or low, or even just factual information, without making a value judgement, such as ‘this one is indoor reared, this one has been reared outside’ and so on.”

McDermott disagrees. “I think it could throw up lots of problems in trying to define what levels of sustainability you’re trying to measure. People may argue that they introduce these schemes to help fill gaps where people are looking for niche areas of certification, and having an overarching government scheme wouldn’t provide that.”

On the flipside of all this confusion is the fact that “a diversified market of different types of schemes ups the game, doesn’t it?” adds Millard. “You could say once the field becomes so crowded it’s difficult to see it as having the same cutting edge, but on the contrary I would say what it’s done, which is what we’d always aimed for, is get these issues into the mainstream.”

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Red Tractor: the comeback plan

Two months after The Times denounced its ‘slaughtered reputation’ following (yet another) investigation into Red Tractor assured farms, this time unconvering inhumane conditions at a Bedfordshire farm, the non-profit returned last week with a suite of new toughened standards.

Due to launch next year the new ‘modular standards’ are designed to ‘substantially increase the strength and breadth’ of the scheme and will cover areas such as animal welfare, organic and environmentally sustainable production.

Rather than replacing existing standards though, the changes will introduce an additional tier of higher ethical labelling, outlined CEO Jim Moseley last week, in an effort to respond to ‘consumer demand’.

But Moseley rejects the idea that this is an admission, to critics of the scheme, that its current standards simply don’t go far enough. “The base standards are what they are, they’re what I think are still extremely good standards and extremely comprehensive.

“We often get described as being ‘no better than legislation’” but “I could go through 100 examples” where they go above and beyond.

He does accept though that each and every breach uncovered by campaigners is a blow to confidence in the scheme. “As far as I’m concerned every time we find a farmer that is not complying with the standard that is one occasion too many and it’s really disappointing and it inevitably damages the scheme, although it will also make us that much stronger in ensuring it doesn’t happen again.”

On top of the new tier of standards to be introduced in 2020 he believes the organisation’s first foray into TV advertising will help to restore that confidence and build better consumer awareness of the standards behind the label.

“I think it will therefore increase the value of the Red Tractor brand, which hopefully will also have a very positive effect on farmers. “If something out there is being advertised as high standards to consumers and they are producing that, my hope is they’ll also step up in terms of aspiring to be a Red Tractor farmer, rather than seeing it as something they’ve got to do.”

He draws the line, though, at any scheme that damages credibility. “It’s not the more the merrier, it’s not quite as simple as that, because what really matters is are they all credible, rigorous and delivering results.”

Because, let’s face it, Red Tractor is not alone among certification bodies in facing blows to its credibility. Fairtrade has had persistent critics over the years, some claiming it distorts markets, others that it actually disadvantages some of the poorest farmers in the world. RSPCA Assured farms have been the subjects of undercover investigations by animal rights groups. Farmers themselves have spoken out on disagreements with the Soil Association. And the Rainforest Alliance has found itself defending allegations of degrading working conditions at certified tea plantations.

“Journalists will track back certified products precisely to bring to consumer attention where they are meeting up to criteria,” says Millard. “We have to have internal quality control systems that enable us to stand by what we’re putting our badge on.”

“Trust is so challenging,” agrees Morey. “In light of things like the Oxfam scandal and the scrutiny of aid spending, consumers do seem to be more cynical. Our research indicates consumers have relatively low trust in what businesses claim around sustainability now,” he adds, though its own research did find trust in Fairtrade remained high, at around 80%. “We were expecting that to dip a bit as the more cynical wider narrative around development was happening so we’re really pleased.”

Brands must do their own groundwork, advises Selander, by looking into the science behind standards, the governance and foundations of a scheme, whether suppliers are independently assessed, validated and certified. “We then work together with the scheme to build that awareness, whether with retailers or directly to consumers, to make sure they understand the standard.” And that they can trust it.

Because without that, certification is little more than expensive window dressing. And shoppers simply won’t pay for that.