Are quality labels making their mark in the poultry industry?
Quality logos have been used since the 1960s to differentiate chicken and eggs and they are becoming increasingly prolific. Yet what value do they add for the producer and consumer?
Quality logos provide a level playing field for producers in terms of standards of production and guarantees for the consumer about how and where the food has been produced. Examples include Germany’s Quality and Safety labelling system, the Netherland’s IKB label and the UK’s Red Tractor label. Some are invisible to the end consumer, but in most cases, it’s about creating a brand that consumers recognise and trust.
The 1990s saw a glut of new assurance schemes for this very reason. Food scares and animal welfare issues were in the media spotlight and the industry needed to respond.
One answer came in the form of the UK’s Red Tractor Scheme. Launched in 2000, it aimed to codify standards of good practice for the production and processing of all agricultural products from cereals and fruit and vegetables to meat, poultry and dairy products. The logo now appears on £10 billion US$16.2 billion) of product, with poultry meat accounting for about 17% of the value.
Red Tractor set out to underpin a wide range of production and products and has never sought to establish itself at a premium, niche level according to Red Tractor CEO David Clarke. “Whether value or premium the consumer deserves to know that the product has been produced to high standards.”
In the case of poultry, the Red Tractor logo provides a guarantee that the food is safe, that national best practice husbandry and welfare standards have been met and that it is fully traceable from egg to processing. The scheme provides a framework of standards across the entire food chain. The flag in the Red Tractor logo guarantees that the product has been farmed, processed and packed in the UK.
The fact that 85% of UK poultry production comes from farms assured in the scheme is testament to the central role it plays for UK producers. But how has the scheme benefited the poultry industry?
Consumer and retailer confidence is a fundamental benefit, according to Clarke. “It plays an important part in upholding the reputation of the industry which continues to face media challenges on food safety and bird welfare.”
He accepts that while 57% of consumers now recognise the logo, understanding may well be lower – a criticism that has been levied at the scheme. “The reality is that shoppers are a very heterogeneous bunch and our communications have to reflect that,” he explains. “Most people don’t want to understand the detail; they are content most of the time with a top level ‘confidence wash.’”
He acknowledges, however, that there are times when more detail is needed, and the scheme then really comes into its own. When dioxins in overseas production were in the headlines, for example, Red Tractor was able to use the scheme to communicate UK industry safeguards against such things.
The UK flag in the Red Tractor Logo also satisfies what Clarke describes as “a surge in interest in origin of food over the past few years.”
He continues: “The key question is whether assurance schemes make a difference to shopping habits. The evidence we have is that Red Tractor makes a difference, albeit we might like it to be more.”
Retailer confidence is another important benefit of the quality assurance scheme. They know that suppliers in the scheme operate to the same, independently verified, standards and the use of a single national scheme avoids duplicate inspections by different customers.
This benefit is now extending to government inspections. According to Clarke, there are already some arrangements where official inspectors rate farms in the Red Tractor scheme as lower priority for inspection accepting that they have already been inspected by the scheme. “This is likely to become more common in future with less management time taken up by inspections and fewer visitors challenging farm bio-security,” he says.
Not all quality assurance schemes have safety and consumer confidence at their roots. In France, the Label Rouge was created as a response to the perceived industrialisation of poultry production in the 1960s. The aim was to preserve the taste of traditionally grown chickens. In fact, regular taste-testing is a certification requirement to prove that these products are "vividly distinguishable" from conventional poultry.
The superior taste comes from the use of slow-growing breeds, which are reared in the open air and for twice as long as standard poultry. Feed rations must consist of at least 75% cereal and must be non-medicated. There is a strong emphasis on sustainable farming methods, with no more than two hours traveling time or 64 miles to a processing plant. Independent verification ensures the standards are being followed.
Label Rouge positions itself as a premium quality mark for free range eggs and chicken. It consists of 6,000 poultry producers comprising many regional producer-oriented alliances, called filieres.
The filieres market their own branded products that are strongly tied to regional areas and have their own images. It supports the French concept of “terroir” – the taste comes from the earth. For example, the Landes filiere markets the image of chickens ranging free in the pine forests along the Atlantic coast. There may be several regional brands competing in a supermarket.
The Label Rouge is a great success story. Despite its premium price, it accounts for over 50% of whole chickens purchased in France and a third of all chickens, according to SYNALAF, the national office for poultry labels. It has played an important part in boosting the incomes of smaller producers and maintaining rural development.
Consumer recognition is high, with Label Rouge cited by 60% of consumers when asked in a 2009 Itavi survey to name a food quality label.
The market share for Label Rouge has nonetheless seen a small erosion since 2005 when it commanded 58% of whole chicken sales. Agnès Laszczyk, Director of Synalaf, explains: “The small drop in market share was partly down to the growth of the organic market, followed by the recession, which saw an increase in the sale of standard chicken meat.” In 2010, Label Rouge market share was on the up once again and, together with organic produce, the two categories dominate the French chicken market.
The value of quality logos is too often measured solely by consumer understanding. It would seem this is missing the point. Value lies in standardizing best practice, creating a level playing field for producers, and boosting consumer confidence in quality – whether premium or value. In this respect, quality logos clearly can make their mark.