“Global” is out, and “local” is in—at least when it comes to foods. After the run on ecological and sustainable foods and beverages, consumers are now focussing more on products that are grown and produced nearby. The counter movement to increasing globalisation extends from Europe to overseas. However, the “regional” term has so far not been defined concretely in any country. Thanks to clear labels, packaging manufacturers can provide customers with increasing transparency.
REGIONAL OR SEASONAL: WHAT IS BEST FOR THE CLIMATE?
According to a survey of 13,800 consumers from 17 European countries that was carried out by the Harris Interactive market research institute on behalf of Consors Finanz in July 2019, the price and quality of a product are still the primary decisive factors when making purchasing decisions. There is also a clear trend towards regional products. 93 percent of the persons surveyed trust regional products and 94 percent trust products from their own country. The primary focus here is on food.
Regional foods and eco seals both lack uniform labels on packaging. Photo: Federal Institute for Agriculture and Food (BLE)
During a survey carried out among 1,000 customers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in June 2019, over 80 percent stated that they purchased regional foods several times a month. Whilst German consumers prefer to purchase their food on markets or farms, Austrians and Swiss consumers purchase a large share of their food in supermarkets. What they all have in common is that they aim to support regional agriculture, secure employment and contribute to climate protection by supporting shorter transportation routes.
However, this is worth looking at more closely, as food from the region is not always more ecological than food that has been imported from farther away. A regional product that is not in season may have to be cooled, which in turn potentially consumes more energy than importing the seasonal product from overseas, including the energy required during transport. Which is why the trend should lead towards seasonal offers when it comes to fresh foods such as fruit and vegetables.
What are regional products?
However, there are no legal regulations that define what the “regional” term means, exactly—not in Germany, nor throughout Europe. And the respective labels rarely provide clarity in the USA, either. Despite what is printed on the packaging, it is not always clear where exactly the product has been manufactured, processed and marketed, and whether “region” means a town or an entire country. Manufacturers are not legally bound to provide information on the processed product’s country of origin. As a result, jam manufacturers, for example, currently do not have to provide information on where the fruit is cultivated, whilst manufacturers of milk products do not have to state the regions of origin for the individual ingredients.
As with eco labels, a broad variety of different regional logos are used on packaging. Besides a lack of uniform legal regulations, consumer protection advocates criticise the lack of control procedures. However, transparency in packaging labels is slowly increasing at a national and European level. Obtaining detailed information can help shed a little light on the shadowy label jungle.
Packaging seal for regional foods
In France, the fruit and vegetable offer has to be sorted in the shelves themselves according to the country of origin. This gives consumers an overview of the regions in which products have been manufactured whilst simultaneously showing which products have already travelled a long way.
Product packaging for foods also increasingly includes indications of the content’s regional origin. The type of information depends on the food and the country that uses the voluntary labelling.
Packaging labels for regional products in the European Union
Throughout the EU, three labels are considered to be particularly significant. However, the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) label is the only one that provides information on the entire process, from manufacturing the raw materials to the finished product.
PDO on packaging The PDO label guarantees clear information on the food’s origin. This is a voluntary label for products that have been registered at EU level. To obtain it, manufactures are required to prove that their product is manufactured, processed and output according to defined criteria. In practice, however, this packaging label is only very rarely obtained. . Parma ham is one example.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) on packaging Goods with the PGI label are merely required to perform one production stage in the stated region. For example: Meat that comes from abroad is used to make sausages in the region.
Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) packaging label TSGs are agricultural products or foods that are either made using traditional raw materials, have a traditional composition or are produced or processed using a traditional method.
Regional Window for packaging in Germany Germany’s Regional Window is a unique form of certification. To obtain it, manufacturers must pass an inspection, meeting the high requirements demanded by the underlying inspection and protection system. Independent testers perform the inspection. This is a voluntary label. Besides the Regional Window, there is an extensive amount of further labels, from a Federal level down to local associations. However, none of these count as a reliable source that consumers can rely on.
In 2012, Germany implemented a voluntary label, the Regional Window for regional products. In 2018, 770 licensees were using the packaging label.
Initiated by the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, the voluntary Regional Window label was introduced at the beginning of 2014; the label is awarded by the supporting association Regionalfenster e.V. (Regional Window registered association). In July 2018, the association had contracts with more than 770 licensees. Meanwhile, around 4,200 foods bear the blue and white label. This provides consumers with reliable and transparent information on the origin, main ingredient and the processing location of the food; manufacturers benefit from high credibility.
Packaging labels for regional products in the USA
The USA is also home to a host of different food labels. This is due to the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has not officially defined the “local” term on food packaging. Food manufacturers do have to register as food processing facilities and are inspected every three to five years. However, these inspections solely check compliance with hygiene regulations. Any other information that is provided does have to be true and unequivocal, however, this is checked randomly and is rarely sanctioned.
The respective federal states are responsible for defining what “regional cultivation” means in detail. Time and again, unofficial inspections uncover false declarations, for example, teas and strawberries that are cultivated over 2,000 miles away from the sale location and are advertised as “local” produce. To uncover misuse on farmers’ markets, in 2014 private food manufacturers defined guidelines within the Know Your Vendor programme. These guidelines help verify the cultivation and processing of the foods sold at the stands.
What do customers expect of their packaging?
Consumers want to be able to trust the packaging label. How important the regional origin is to them depends on the product. For German customers, fresh fruit and vegetables head the table with 80 percent—when it comes to frozen foods or preserves, origin is only important to 12 percent of consumers. This is followed by meats and sausages (58 percent), milk products (51 percent) and grain products such as bread (43 percent). Consumer protection associations point out that vague terms such as “local”, without further information on the location, as well as the information “made for ...” on packaged foods do not make any statements on the content’s origin.
Warning: counterfeit food!
Besides misleading information on regions provided by the packaging, the content also does not always correspond to the information on the product’s label. Controls within the European Union may have shown that in most cases, the taste is not affected, and neither are the products harmful to our health. Nevertheless: In April 2017, a Europe-wide campaign was carried out in over 60 states, 21 of which were EU member states, and brought counterfeit foods valued at around 230 million euros to light. Between December 2016 and March 2017, the police, customs officials and food authorities seized close to 10,000 tons and 26 million litres of counterfeit foods.
Currently, for example, packaging expert Constantia Flexibles is operating a production site that has been accredited by the International Hologram Manufacturing Association (IHMA) and therefore is able to produce security elements that are otherwise used for bank notes.