Food labelling is increasingly under the microscope. The recently released results of a national survey by the Food Standards Agency revealed that 40% of consumers are confused by terms such as ‘traditional’, ‘authentic’, ‘farmhouse’ and ‘natural’. In the current, competitive climate, such terms seem to be becoming increasingly adopted without substance.
Consumers demand and deserve complete transparency and the food industry must be seen to address and remove misleading marketing practices and labelling before credibility and trust are lost altogether. In an environment where almost every day there is a media story slamming company practices, and where action groups abound lobbying for change, we simply cannot afford to act in any way other than totally responsibly, openly and with complete clarity.
The FSA’s survey revealed that 75% of food samples tested that were labelled ‘farmhouse’ were produced on industrial premises. As a supplier of ‘farmhouse’ cheddar for both selected Pilgrims Choice products and retailer own label, we at North Downs Dairy mean Cheddar that has been traditionally handmade on small, local family farms with milk from their own herds and an additional select few using recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Indeed, Pilgrims Choice Farmhouse Reserve and Leaze Farm Reserve quote ‘farmhouse’ and ‘handmade’ on the packaging - even going so far as to indicate the actual farm from which they originate to further reassure consumers.
Yet numerous food manufacturers blatantly leverage the ‘farmhouse’ term while producing these same foods en masse on industrial premises. Simply put, consumers deserve better. The food industry should unite to prioritise consumer confidence. A vow to use only product descriptions that are unequivocally based on fact has to be the way forward.
Again in the interests of flying the flag for authenticity and transparency - and more specifically in relation to the cheese industry - it is worth nothing that, in line with PDO guidelines (Protected Designation of Origin), only products that are genuinely made in the areas to which they are indigenous can claim to be authentic. For example, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar cheese should be traditionally handmade in
the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall - and these counties alone.
In 1996, the Stilton Cheese Manufacturers Association succeeded in being given PDO status for Blue Stilton by the European Commission. The PDO effectively protects Stilton from imitation across the EU. Copycat cheeses produced in regions other than Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire cannot be sold as Stilton.
At North Downs Dairy we send our expert graders across the West Country in search of the very best mature PDO Cheddars. We hand select everything we sell and if it’s not 100% perfect, it simply doesn’t get a look in.
Of course, we’re not alone. Many other food producers out there pay the same sort of attention to quality and can fulfil the high volume demands of multiples too. Surely we deserve to be differentiated and insured in the open market with PDO accreditation so that consumers are absolutely clear when they are purchasing a food product with heritage and authentic attributes.
To further underline the importance of authenticity, the Office of National Statistics has just revealed that regional cheese is a ‘must have’ shopping list item while calculating the Retail Price Index - not any old cheese, but one with a clear identity.
According to the FSA, it will be down to local authorities and trading standards officers to ensure that local food manufacturers do not mislead consumers.
The next stage is to get feedback on the FSA survey from the food industry. This is our chance to prove we are committed to putting the consumer first.