Consumers are increasingly aware of nutrition and health. Worldwide, they want to be better informed about the foods they eat, particularly when it comes to food content and what is declared on the product label.
In a 2008 survey, conducted by Ketchum on 1 000 consumers in the UK, US, Argentina, Germany and China, 53% of all respondents indicated that ‘health benefits’ were a top consideration when selecting food, 63% wanted to be able to recognise all the ingredients on food labels and 50% wanted a direct say in the type and source of ingredients used, nutritional content, treatment of animals and who should be responsible for food safety and quality.
At the same time, there has been a move by consumers in many countries (including South Africa) towards protecting the environment (‘going green’), sustainability in food production systems and an increased inclination to support ethical products. This has led to many food manufacturers making ethical claims on products to increase their public appeal, such as ‘free range’, ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable.’
Shifting consumer demands place immense pressure on the food industry to remain innovative and informative, compounded by increasingly strict legislation, such as the Labelling Regulations (R.146/2010) and the Consumer Protection Act (R.68/2008). These regulations may seem stringent and prescriptive but, in the current economy, some food
manufacturers have been found to be somewhat dishonest about their products. Bogus and scientifically-unsound heath claims abound; ‘green washing’ is of major concern and ethical claims often rely on a manufacturer’s interpretation of words such as ‘free range’ and ‘organic,’ justified by adding a trademark to these names to excuse the misinterpretation.
Such practices not only deceive the consumer and produce greater confusion on the market, but also create an uneven playing field and afford dishonest participants a biased, unfair advantage over those committed to doing the right thing.
South Africa’s eLabel, launched in October 2011, is a civil society collaboration that aims to provide and share information on the ethical, health, sustainability and environmental impacts of products and services via its integrated mobile and web-based platforms.
The initiative came about after Eitan Stern (a University of Cape Town law graduate) and I saw a gap in the market to provide the consumer with information they need.
As the relevance and credibility of information supplied is of utmost importance to eLabel, products and suppliers are reviewed with the help of civil society organisations and experts, acting in their own capacities. These partners include Fairtrade-SA, the World Wildlife Fund’s Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (WWF-SASSI), the Biodiversity in Wine Initiative (BWI), SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Concerned Consumers, PETCO, Compassion in World Farming SA, as well as academia, farmers and other industry partners (see www.elabel.org). Some of the research categories in which products are reviewed include: packaging, carbon footprint, impact on biodiversity and animal treatment, social justice issues, nutrition and health.
Interested users can register and access the eLabel platform of product and service information and read posts, make comments, question and upload relevant articles and videos. The platform collates information that would otherwise be scattered across the Net, in academic institutions or in the confines of a manufacturers’ database, making it available in one ‘space’ (i.e. a single website or channel). The database will also become available via mobile phone applications (currently iPhone and Android and, soon, Blackberry and Nokia).
Consumers will be able to scan a product barcode using their smartphones and automatically receive information on that product via the eLabel database to allow an informed decision at the point of sale (check out the infographic here).
At present, there are over 2 500 products listed on the eLabel platform. They cover food products, household goods, clothing and beauty products, restaurants, corporate companies and government departments. Currently, 10 000 users access the information via the web or mobile application.
More users means better coverage
Their aim is to cover all products, which is why we they need as many consumers using the platform as possible.
eLabel by no means intends to single out any one product or company for their social, environmental or animal rights practices – rather, it aims to facilitate discussion around a product, brand or claim (both positive and negative) in order to encourage openness and transparency.
According to 148Apps.biz of a total of 542 446 iPhone applications available, the health, fitness and medical application categories enjoyed 4.23% of the downloaded and actively-used application count. This indicates the potential for further application development within these categories. No applications currently exist on the South African phone apps market that provide scientifically-sound nutritional, ingredient and allergy/intolerance information about products in stores to mobile application users.
eLabel has also sought the expertise of FACTS (Food & Allergy Consulting and Testing Services)* in expanding its platform to include a mini-application within the main eLabel application, called Nutrivisor. It will combine nutritional, health and allergy/intolerance aspects of food products in a single module, with ‘general’ and ‘customised’ formats. In the ‘general’ format, the user will be able to access detailed, credible information on product ingredients, nutritional status, potentially allergenic components and possibly misleading statements or claims.
In the ‘customised’ version, users will save their personal preferences, dietary needs and health conditions and will be alerted to products (or component ingredients in products) which do not match their saved personal settings and should potentially be avoided for health or ethical reasons. This application will be a useful addition to the eLabel platform, bolstered by a partnership that ensures up-to-date nutritional information is provided that empowers consumers to make purchasing decisions consistent with their health and lifestyle requirements.
“As a unique team comprising a medical doctor, food scientists and dieticians, FACTS has a wide range of expertise spanning health, nutrition, allergies, regulatory and analytical fields. As such, we are ideally positioned to assist with the provision of credible, scientifically-sound nutritional information and advice to members of the South African public,” says Dr Donna Cawthorn of FACTS.
In short, eLabel combines technology and ethical consumerism to inspire a revolution in consumer choice. The consumer wants transparency and sustainability in the food industry and this is an opportunity for companies to become ethical leaders.
By Mark Fox, eLabel concept developer (pictured above)