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Food labels: keep it simple and stupid

In her weekly column in Le Figaro, French most visited online journal, Natacha Polony defended on 5 Dec 2014 the idea that food labels should not be simplified. We disagree.

Read further to find out why and more importantly “how” labels should be simplified to benefit the customers’ interest.

Is Mrs. Polony’s argumentation really worthwhile ?

Mrs Polony was arguing that a recent law passed to simplify the labeling of meat was non-sense. This law requires that a limited number of names be used to call the various pieces of meat that can be sold in supermarkets. Rather than using the real name of the piece of meat, the labeling will in the future only indicate what it’s good for.

Mrs. Polony argues that consumers should not be taken for silly and uneducated. She wrote that this simplified labeling method would lead the consumer to lose his/her freedom of choice.

She is absolutely right that this new method of labeling matches was pushed by retailers and will serve their interests. But she’s in our opinion wrong when she says that by so-doing retailers are infantilizing consumers.

Consumers want simplicity

Consumers, especially when they are in supermarkets, don’t want to lose time and do most of their purchases by habit. They are looking for to-the-point information that will help them make quick choices. It is wrong to think that consumers have all the required level of education to make thought-over choices. Do you read the labels of all the processed food you buy in your local supermarkets ?

Educate customers with a customer-oriented value

The eternal debate between full label and simplistic labels must stop. On the one hand the retailers’ choice for simplicity is motivated by the perspective of selling more. On the other hand, the authorities’ choice for completeness is motivated by the desire to educate the customer.

As we explained in a 2-page interview in a recent special issue of a Belgian newspaper, the authorities’ view is completely erroneous. It’s illusory to think that consumers will indeed read labels before making a choice. Some people will undoubtedly do it but most won’t and retailers know it. Authorities however seem to ignore this which led the European Commission to launch a directive on 13 December 2014 for “better” labels that will eventually help no one.

What authorities should do is to take actual consumers’ behavior into account, harness the power of marketing, and create simple labels to help consumers make better choices (in terms of health for instance). The solution is known and called “traffic lights”. It’s been implemented in UK already but curiously UK will have to justify this choice and prove to the European Commission that doesn’t impede competition. This situation is just crazy and reveals the lack of practical knowledge on the EU side. And it’s one more argument for Euroskeptics …

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Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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