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Role That Labels Play In Informing Consumers

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Marketing
Wordcount: 2259 words Published: 1st May 2017

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The quality of the food products becomes increasingly important for the customers (Dalen, 1996, Steenkamp, 1990). The perception of food has rapidly changed and there is an increased general awareness about health aspects of the food. The food labelling has important role in responding to that demands by providing information about safety and quality of the food.

Food labels can be found on the back or side of the pre-packed foods and they include information about energy (calories), fat content, protein, amount of sugar, amount of salt and sodium, etc. The information is displayed as a panel or table. It is important that it is accurate, because consumer is using it to make safe and optimal use of the foods they buy. Food labels have generally important role in marketing of the products, advertising and consumer confidence in food quality and safety (Caswell and Mojduszka, 1996).

This paper will focus on discussing the role the labels play in informing consumers in terms of food safety and quality.

Role of food labelling

The role of food labels has changed in the recent years. Food labelling evolved as a response to many changes in the food industry. These include increasing sales of pre-packaged foods, the predominance of self-service in food shops, development of advanced food processing technologies and new preparation methods such as microwave heating (Cheftel, 2005). These changes have led to increased importance of consumer right to know about the product. These efforts have mainly focused on safety and quality of the food and have taken many forms. The information about product can be real or “perceived”. This means, that not only basic information about ingredients, additives, allergens are present on the label but also nutrition information, health claims and philosophical or ethical concerns are specified (for example mode of production, country of origin). In the recent years we have witnessed several food crises which highlighted importance of food safety and quality and protection of health. All that objectives can be achieved by appropriate labelling of the food (Cheftel, 2005).

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Importance of food labelling legislations

In UK, to make sure that all information given on the label is useful and not misleading, there are legislations that set requirements about the food labelling. There are 3 departments that are responsible for food labelling regulations: Defra, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department of Health. Requirements that they set help to achieve consistency in the food industry and help consumers to make safe choices for their food (Defra, 2011).The UK has been also leading in Europe with regard to promoting nutrition labelling on food and especially front-of-pack (FOP) signposting (Grunert, et al.2010).

In European Union (EU) increasing awareness about health and quality of the food, especially fear from the bovine spongiform encephalopathy, dioxin contamination of livestock feed, and concerns related to certain production processes has lead European Union to introduce food labelling policies that focus on traceability, origin and production (protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and country-of-origin labelling (COOL).) (Loureiro and Umberger 2007). As a result consumers increased their confidence and trust in the information on the label. Therefore food labelling in European Union provide enhanced food safety and consumer confidence, which adds value to the final product (Loureiro and Umberger 2007).

Positive role of food labelling in providing information about safety and quality

The main argument supporting the need for food labelling is the consumer ‘right to know’. This is particularly important for food allergic consumers, because the only way of avoiding allergic reaction is to avoid specific ingredients in food. Therefore the effective labelling of ingredients in food products is essential and it is a main source of information about the product (Eigenmann, 2001). However there is a general consumer perception that there is lack of information about potential food allergens in the products (Cornelisse-Vermaat et al. 2008). Allergic customers also reported that they are overwhelmed with excessive amount of information on the label that is included in addition to information about allergens. This lead to conclusion that labels should deliver more targeted information to specific type of consumers (Miles et al., 2006; Cornelisse-Vermaat et al. 2008).

In 2006 EU has taken actions to help food allergic consumers in their purchasing decisions. According the new directive (EU directive 2003/89/EC amending 2000/13/EC) food manufacturers should list 12 potential allergens when these are present in food products (Cornelisse-Vermaat et al. 2008). In the study conducted in Greece, Germany and Netherlands most respondents preferred a label containing a box with standardized food allergy information such as a standardised symbol (indicating the allergens) both at the back and the front of food packages. Consumers also demanded that labels should show the percentages of the allergens in the food product, as well as provide specific details about allergy management in the food (Voordouw et al. 2011)

Providing information about health and quality of the food became very important as a result of the occurrence of food crises such as animal diseases like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Consumers’ concerns about beef safety have increased and the need for appropriate labelling also rose.

Bernue´sa et al. (2003) in their attempted to identify the most important information cues demanded by consumers buying beef, found that the most important information were the origin/region of production and deadline (consume by), system of production, traceability of animals and products, and the quality controls put in place by the industry which was especially important for consumers concerned about safety and nutrition/health issues. This is in agreement with study by Roosen et al. (2001) that shows that consumers in France and Germany indicated that the origin of their beef was more important than brand, price or fat content. However for consumers in UK origin-labelling were more important than brand labelling, but steak colour, price and fat content were most important attributes (Roosen et al., 2001). The recent studies also showed that the consumption of beef becomes influenced by health and nutritional considerations (Angulo and Gil, 2007). This shows that consumers demand information about health and quality of the food and that food labelling has important role in providing that information.

Negative role of food labelling in giving information about safety and quality

Providing information about quality and safety of the product is not straight forward. Excessive amount of information can lead to information overload which can confuse customers or make them lost interest and trust in the information provided. This is the main reason why food labels are being criticised. Opponents of food labels argue that providing excessive information is destructive and limits consumer choice because they might develop belief that biotechnology has negative effect on their health. (Browning, 1993; Carter and Gruere, 2003).

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The other problem related to the information content is limited size of the label. Data given on food labels are often very condensed and not always fully read and understood. The chance that consumer will respond to the label depends if the label can convince consumer that it contains valuable information. Grunert and Wills (2007) showed that consumers prefer the idea of simplified front of pack information.

Awareness and understanding of food labelling is an important health issue. There are number of questions that arise in this subject. Do consumers trust and use the information provided in food labels. Does labelling encourage people to choose better diet? Do consumers have enough scientific background to interpret information on the labels? (Cheftel, 2005 ). Research in that subject does not provide definitive answers. (Cowburn and Stockley, 2005) reported that use of nutrition labels is high however the actual use appears to be considerably lower.

The review conducted by Grunert and Wills (2007) shows that there is widespread interest for nutrition information on food packages and that consumers have general good understanding between food and health and that they are interested in using information from food labels. Research showed that majority consumers understood the most common labelling formats and they were able to replay key information presented to them in an experimental situation. However there is limited information available how food labels are being used in a real-world shopping situation, and how they can affect consumers’ dietary patterns (Grunert and Wills, 2007).

Douaud (2006) has reported that most consumers do not understand the labelling information put on most food products they buy. According to Petrucelli (1996) the effectiveness of food labels depends on consumers’ perceptions and beliefs about the use of these labels. In other words if consumers do not perceive the nutrition information on food labels as useful then they won’t use the label.

Designing effective marketing and nutrition education campaigns could potentially help in educating consumers about food labels. The study by Kessler (1999) showed that people who received information about food labelling from healthcare providers had a “good” or better nutrition knowledge score. The study suggests that an education program is needed that teaches people how to use information from the nutrition facts label to make healthy food choices. (Kessler, 1999)

Another controversial problem related to the role of food labels in informing consumers about health and quality is concept of substantial equivalent (Kolodinsky, 2008). Information about some of the food attributes could potentially affect consumers’ choices and affect their health and welfare. For example negative label on the milk (rBST – free) or positive label (contains rBST) may indicate that rBST is harmful for health, and that milk that does not contain rBST is better (McClure, 2001). As a result consumer might pay additional price to get “better” milk which is rBST free. The label in this case is not informing consumer about health and quality but it influence consumer attitude and preference. The demand for this type of information has increased and it has been proven that consumers are prepared to pay additional price for this kind of label (Dhar and Foltz, 2005). There are several studies showing that consumers pay more for genetically modified organism (GMO) free products and for rBST-free products (Wang et al.,1997; Onyango et al., 2006; Chen and Chern, 2002).

Giving credible information on the label is very important but it is not always clear what information should be included. There are some areas of food industry where there is a lack of consumer-orientated information. Bernue´sa et al. (2003) argued that food labelling in meat industry is not very well defined and the information that consumers need are not well known. It has been reported that credence attributes that are result of increasing concerns among consumers on safety, health, convenience, locality, ethical factors, are focusing on the quality of the production process but not on the product itself. As a result there are no relevant or appropriate information available (Becker, 2000). Bernue´sa et al. (2003) highlights some specific problems or particular challenges related to meat labelling. He claims that labelling issues in meat industry are associated with the natural variability and the delivery of consistent quality. In addition meat is considered as a commodity and it is often sold unbranded in small portions cut and prepared by the retailer or butcher.


To summarise, food labels have important role in informing consumers about safety and quality of food. Food labelling has broad impact that is beyond helping consumers in shopping. Labels can influence product quality, confidence in product and consumer knowledge on health and diet. They are also considered one of the major instruments in improving healthy eating. The benefits of food label are clear. It provides essential information about products (use-by dates, safety warnings, information for allergic consumers etc.) as well as information that are considered useful (nutrition labelling, information for allergic consumers). Thy allow consumers to make an informed choice when they purchasing food products. However this objective can only be achieved when the labels are consumer friendly, which means that they are easy to read and fully understood. Considering the complexity of food labelling legislation this task is not easy. It is particularly difficult in the areas of biotechnology such as GMO. Therefore it is important to consider customer needs in designing food labels. Labelling itself is not sufficient to provide information about safety and quality of the food and needs to be supported by promotional strategies aimed at establishing label awareness.


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