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Unjustified criticism of your products can lead to bad press for your company. However, manufacturers and retailers can protect themselves. SGS has identified four success factors for reliable product claims.

Your product fulfils the statutory declaration. The product's properties correlate with common industry standards. Limit values have not been surpassed. And yet there is criticism. Your product tests poorly in a test magazine or a non-profit organisation advocates withdrawing your product from the market. How could this happen? Producers and retailers must come to terms with a growing number of product evaluations. Not only testing laboratories, but also non-governmental organisations, journalists and even private individuals test food products and publish their opinions of the producers and goods on the internet. What is allowed or not allowed, usually has a dynamic entirely of its own. Not everything that is allowed is tolerated by public opinion. Producers and retailers must be prepared for such public inquiries. SGS has identified four success factors for creating reliable product claims so that products can stand up to even the most critical public scrutiny.

How manufacturers and retailers can protect themselves against criticism

It's odd, but allowed: according to European law, a product with the name “poultry sausage” is allowed to contain pork. If this is only made clear to consumers when reading the list of ingredients, this causes resentment. There is nothing wrong with this from a legal point of view. Something similar occurs when a product’s package boasts a "100-year tradition", but is manufactured using present-day additives. To a discerning consumer, this just does not make sense; but it is by no means a violation of the law on the part of the product producer. Similarly difficult is “proof of origin”. Is the geographic information on the product's package referring to the origin of all ingredients or only the main ingredient, or is it referring to the origin of the recipe? The ongoing discussion on "perceived deception" is reignited whenever questions that are prompted by product promises cannot be answered conclusively with a quick look at the label.

What lies behind a product sticker that promises "top quality"? When "animal welfare" is on the product's label, how do producers define this term and how is it defined by consumers? Today, product packaging has less to do with what is legal and more to do with what the general public is likely to regard as legitimate. Regardless of whether you submit to this trend as a producer or retailer SGS recommends that companies in the food industry design their products and advertising conscientiously and free from euphemisms and put their products to the test so that the companies are armed against any critical inquiries. In doing so, the following four success factors for creating sound and proven product claims can be a valuable tool for support.

Success factor 1: Making valid statements that can be verified

In view of the global trade and highly fragmented work processes involved in food production, it is becoming increasingly difficult for producers and retailers to relay a product‘s value and quality, in short, concise and universal terms – and then prove it. Indicating origin on packaging is made more difficult when one and the same ingredient is sourced from different suppliers in different countries. Meanwhile, statements such as "Our canola oil comes mainly from Germany" may be perceived as shady and may annoy the public. Also, typical marketing claims such as "close to nature", "made traditionally", "made with the finest ingredients" or references to the omission of certain ingredients should be chosen with care. When there are no specific testing criteria or such statements are legally sound only when supported by complicated legal constructions, consumer acceptance drops dramatically. For example: what is the definition of "regional"? This term can convey the image of a neighbourhood farm to one person and a federal state to another. This is why producers should only use valid statements on their packages and in their product advertising that can be verified and supported by defined criteria.

Independent certification bodies such as SGS can help you achieve the necessary balance between the producer's claims and the customer's expectations. A rule of thumb could be: make no product promises before testing – because reputable quality labels are not arbitrarily awarded, but are based on accepted norms, industry standards, and legal guidelines whose compliance is checked by independent institutions. Transparency is extremely important when choosing test criteria for determining the award of a certification mark. With unbiased testing, standards for "soft" product characteristics such as regionalism, fair working conditions or animal welfare can also be established over the medium term. Because only what is measurable and verifiable can consistently compete in the market and prove itself to the general public. When an increasing number of market participants initially submit voluntarily to individually set standards, a virtual shakeout in the market takes place in the sense of a mutually acceptable point of view of producers and consumers – without public outcry over "perceived deception" exploited by the media.

Success factor 2: Routine verification by external providers

What is advocated or disapproved of by the public is subject to a certain amount of change and sometimes lacks clear reasoning. Legally non-binding product characteristics, such as the regional origin of ingredients, animal welfare or references to more gentle ways of processing, are especially often subject to a very individual debate that can quickly discredit the entire industry. This is all the more so if this is picked up by the media. In order to avoid being the spark or the target of an escalating debate over deceptive product packaging, it is advisable to seek the discerning opinion of an outsider before launching new products. Independent testing institutes such as SGS have the level of detachment necessary to test in-house concepts inside out. When this type of testing is made known externally – such as in the form of a quality seal – it gives the product even more value. Independent testing automatically makes the product appear reliable because the act of applying for certification already lends credibility. Here, it is also useful to take advantage of the achievements made in modern communication technology. Product advertising that is brief and succinct by necessity can be corroborated by background information on the tests performed, which may be provided on the internet or displayed at point of sale terminals and made accessible to almost everyone.

Success factor 3: Taking responsibility for the entire value-added chain

Producers and retailers of food products also take responsibility for their upstream and downstream partners. Suppliers are just as often the focus of public criticism as the producers and distributors of the goods themselves. This has been highlighted in recent years by various "food scandals" such as in the case of feed contaminated with dioxin or horse meat mixed with beef. Today, it is often not sufficient enough for you to have a "clean slate" alone. Producers and retailers also need to be able to prove that they aren’t making any of their purchases from the "rotten apples" of the supplier industry. By conducting supplier audits along the entire value chain, inspections of incoming goods and analytical testing carried out conscientiously, breaches from suppliers can be detected at an early stage. The more thorough the inspection is in advance of any potential crises, the better.

SGS has also experienced this with its own SGS Institut Fresenius Quality Seal – one of the oldest and most comprehensive seals in Germany. About 30 years before the European legislator laid out mandatory traceability requirements for the entire supply chain in 2002 under the European basic Regulation on food No. 178/2002, this was already a standard requirement for the award of the SGS Institut Fresenius Quality Seal. Only those who have their products frequently and thoroughly tested along the entire supply chain, including the preliminary agricultural stage, and have audits conducted at production plants and at suppliers’ facilities, as well as analytically verify the nutritional value, among others, for other special rewards, are allowed to advertise using this seal. Many – but not all – of today's test seals are based on comprehensive inspections along the entire value chain; for example, the MSC seal for sustainable fishery products or the certification of GMO-free supply chains.

Success factor 4: Using state of the art expertise

Regular document verification is an important aspect of effective quality assurance, but it is not the only aspect. Sufficiently complete and sound verification can only be done using modern laboratory analysis that ranges from raw material testing and classical concentration determinations of ingredients highlighted in advertising, such as vitamins and minerals; the detection of trace amounts of contaminants or allergens; through to hygiene audits. The key is: the analysis used must meet the highest requirements. Even NGOs, test magazines and official monitors place their trust in laboratory analysis – including journalists who like to reference contract laboratories. Here it is important to be a step ahead when selecting suitable measurement methods and also when it comes to their timeliness and sensitivity and the expertise of those who are entrusted with the analysis' execution. It's not simply a question of the random analytical recording of each and every parameter of a food product, rather it is adapted specifically to the respective goods and their application in order to create and implement an audit trail that presents a solid foundation for a balanced and constructive debate on the matter criticised.

In conclusion: Those who are prepared will not be left behind

Food is monitored. Food safety and advertising are under considerable debate in public media, on the internet and in numerous television and radio programmes. Those who base claims on valid and transparent testing can make valid product promises to the public and can better prepare for critical inquiries. Independent testing institutes such as SGS can help.