With ever-decreasing attention spans (about 8 seconds, according to one 2015 Microsoft study), it stands to reason that consumers make quick point-of-sale decisions about which products to chuck in their shopping carts. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t know what they want these products to be made from—or not made from. Today’s consumers demand transparency more than ever, so the labels on food and beverage products are an important component in such a competitive market. According to Label Insight, whose mission it is to help consumers understand what is in the products they use and consume, transparency is so important that 37% of consumers will switch brands if their current one does not provide them with the information they seek. 

The buyer wants what the buyer wants, and this is where marketing claims on labels come into play. Consumers demand certain qualities—think “clean label,” “zero sugar” and “non-GMO,” for example. Marketing claims such as these can affect the ways that foods and beverages are produced. 

Sarah Krol, global managing director of food safety product certification, NSF International, says that today’s consumer is inherently focused on value and transparency when selecting food and beverages to buy. 

“Consumers are willing to pay premium prices for foods that not only taste good and are convenient, but (also for) products that fit their health, lifestyle and dietary needs,” she says. “Label claims and independent certifications are the easiest way for a consumer to quickly identify a product that is ‘free from’ certain ingredients, or a product that is produced in a manner that is aligned with consumer beliefs and personal values, such as ‘pasture raised.’” 

Steve Armstrong, independent advisor for food law and regulation, EAS Consulting Group, says that the fundamental issues with marketing claims are ensuring that the process-oriented marketing claim is truthful, non-misleading and adequately substantiated. He adds that resolving these issues is essential for every marketing claim, and process labeling claims present special challenges.  

“First, the claim itself must be considered in context,” he says. What messages are conveyed to the reasonable consumer when the statement is presented on the label or in advertising? Can those messages be supported? “These questions become difficult when one considers that many process-labeling claims are often presented in a word, a phrase, an emblem, or a combination of all three,” he says. These elements can convey a great many meanings, not all of which may be accurate or supportable.

For example, “non-GMO” is often understood as a desirable product attribute, but it is often misunderstood, he says. “Many consumers may regard a ‘non-GMO’ food as healthier or more nourishing or safer for the environment than the same food that uses GMO,” he says. 

These kinds of conclusions are not scientifically supportable, however. “The problem is compounded when the limited real estate of a label is crowded with terms such as ‘healthy’ or ‘good source of protein,’ or other claims that may suggest a link between the absence of genetic engineering and a desirable taste or nutritional attribute,” Armstrong says. He says to consider what a consumer might understand from the lines: “great taste,” “healthy” and “non-GMO.”

Consumer Demand

Understanding the consumer takeaway is the critical first step in evaluating the viability of a process-labeling claim. It’s important to remember that many such claims are “heuristics,” i.e., terms that convey a dense variety of meanings and messages within the confines or a shorthand term or phrase. 

“These kinds of shorthands can send powerful messages to a consumer, especially one pushing a shopping cart or stroller in the grocery aisle who has literally seconds to read a label and decide whether to toss the product into the cart,” says Armstrong.

Carol Zweep, senior manager for packaging, product development and compliance, NSF International, says it also is important that food manufacturers ensure that each claim they make meets any criteria for substantiation that is written into the regulations. She adds that where no regulations exist, they must ensure that a claim is not misleading to the consumer to whom they are marketing. 

“Knowing where to find the legal requirements to make each claim can be difficult,” Zweep says. “Also, in this increasingly litigious environment, it can be very difficult to determine how to substantiate the claims that do not have a clear set of criteria required to make the claim, such as any claim containing the buzzword ‘natural.’ Litigators are always coming up with a new way of demonstrating that a reasonable consumer has been misled by information on the product label they bought. It is necessary for food manufacturers to monitor the results of class action filings for precedent being set for claims that they make.”

“In many respects, the food industry has become a victim of its own success,” Armstrong says. “Food production technology has advanced dramatically over the last century. Today, food is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. However, a by-product of this success is increasing consumer alienation from the production process, and this concern, coupled with the concern over the impact of modern farming techniques, have helped drive the demand for process information on food labels.”

He says these concerns have helped fuel what is commonly called the “Food Movement,” i.e., people across the nation who are becoming or already are passionately engaged or interested in their food and where it comes from. These people are interested in how the food-supply chain works and how the food we eat gets from farm to table. Armstrong says that a survey conducted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance found that 70 percent of consumers said their purchase decisions were affected by how food was grown and raised, and three-quarters said they think about this topic while grocery shopping.*  

Certifying the process

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that labeling claims be truthful and non-misleading in “every particular,” Armstrong says. The FTC’s Deception policy, which governs both labeling and advertising, sets much the same standard and also demands that a claim be backed by adequate substantiation. The USDA, through the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), exercises strict oversight of claims on meat and poultry products and also provides a wealth of information through its handbooks and policy guides on what claims are proper for a variety of products.  

“Third-party certification is extremely important for process labeling claims,” Armstrong says. “A great many of these claims are available to firms that are willing to undergo independent audits to validate the process and enable a labeling claim.” 

He notes that examples of this service include the Non-GMO Project, the National Organic Standards Board and the Rainforest Alliance. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has a team of experts that conduct inspection and certification services for its “USDA Process Certified” label. As one example, Armstrong says that a grain supplier used the service to verify its shipments “USDA Process Certified Non-GMO.”

Krol says that determining which agency and which regulation to comply with can be complex and dependent on a number of factors. 

“Companies without regulatory or legal expertise to navigate food labeling regulations should seek the services of a legal or consultancy firm,” she says. In the case of NSF International, the organization provides services to help food processors ensure their labels are compliant for the products, geographic markets and the types of product claims they are making. 

A more recent example of a certified mark that is gaining traction on packaging is the Cold Pressure Council’s High Pressure Certified (HPC) mark, which provides a distinctive mark for consumers to recognize on products that utilize high pressure technology. Tom Egan, vice president of the Cold Pressure Council, explains that high pressure processing (HPP) technology provides a range of products, including various fresh beverages, dips, salsa and meats, a step for microbial destruction while enabling the product to maintain a nutritious and flavorful profile. 

“Consumer education is also is the goal of the HPC mark,” Egan says. “Through its use, consumers can easily recognize products that used HPP for a finished product that is in line with consumers’ strong preference for natural taste and great nutrition in their packaged food choices.”

Lisa Wessels, CMO at JBTAvure, adds that the HPC mark is the only one out there that signifies the food is safe from pathogens. “Consumers can rest assured that the food will not make them sick,” she says.

Faith Wittmus, quality assurance manager, Good Foods, adds, “HPP technology is a food safety solution that extends shelf life, but also has the benefit of delivering clean label marketing claims such as no preservatives. It allows us to create and manufacture products made with fresh ingredients, without the need for any artificial ingredients, flavors or preservatives.”

Zweep also notes that many product labels carry nutrient content claims, describing the level of a nutrient in a food (such as “High in Vitamin C”). It is important to consider whether the type of processing would impact the level of the nutrient that is the subject of the claim. 

“For example, thermal processing degrades heat labile nutrients such as vitamin C, so use of non-thermal processing ensures that the product would still be safe for consumers, while also containing the level of the nutrient required by regulation to make the claim,” she notes.

For a product that will carry a “gluten-free” claim, she says, it is necessary for the food manufacturer to ensure that there is no unintended addition of a gluten-containing grain in the formula, but also that any unavoidable cross-contamination during processing is less than 20 ppm.

“Food manufacturers wanting to make this claim must determine whether their facilities are amenable to the regulation, i.e. specific allergen control systems, even dedicated lines or facilities. Depending on the manufacturing site and the ingredients used, periodic testing of the final product may be prudent to ensure the claim is substantiated,” Zweep says.

Transparency, Traceability

When it comes to transparency and traceability, Krol says a food processor should limit claims to include only those it can verify and control. 

“For example, in the case of allergen statements or other ‘free from’ claims, it is critically important that the food processor have quality systems in place to substantiate the validity of such a claim, especially those with health impacts or consequences,” she explains.

Armstrong adds that in today’s world, every food manufacturer should know where its ingredients come from and have visibility across the supply chain, all the way back to the farm. “This is essential, not only as a matter of food safety compliance, but also for the purpose of understanding what the supply chain practices will support in terms of process labeling claims,” he says. 

Has the entire system—farm, distribution, manufacturing—been validated as non-GMO? Organic? He says that while the marketers always have insights into what their consumers desire, they also know to work with their regulatory and supply chain partners to understand the art of the possible. 

“For example, selecting the right ingredients and ingredient suppliers can enable a product to be certified as organic, or, present a ‘clean label,’ consisting solely of ingredients that are familiar and easy to understand.” 

He says that the key to substantiating such claims lies in the careful selection and oversight of suppliers, as well as the operation of the entire supply chain under strict, consistently applied quality controls. “After all, the process-labeling claim must be strictly accurate with respect to every unit of product that bears the claim,” he says. 

CPC’s Egan adds that transparency is a top priority when discussing the HPC mark. 

“The mission of the Cold Pressure Council is to promote the education and standardization of high pressure processing, and the main part of any educational process is gaining better knowledge about the products being purchased so as to make an informed decision,” he says.

Adapting to Demands

Marketing claims drive the process, and the effect on the processing operations can be dramatic. 

“The desire to have a product certified as ‘USDA Organic’ will affect practices up and down the supply chain, beginning with the requirement that agricultural fields supporting organic product lie fallow for several years to assure the absence of pesticides or non-organic fertilizers,” Armstrong says. 

He says the hurdles to organic certification are so high that one certification agent, QAI, has offered farmers and producers the option of certifying their operations as being ‘transitional,’ i.e., on the pathway toward organic certification.

“Once a claim is affixed to the label, a supply chain/manufacturing system must be in place to consistently support that claim and to ensure that the claim is accurate with respect to every SKU and every unit of product making such claim,” Armstrong says. He says that if the supply chain/manufacturing process cannot support the claim in this manner, then the claim must be dropped from the label.

NSF’s Krol agrees. She says that marketing claims can impact all aspects of production processes, including ingredient and input segregation, raw material and ingredient verification, packaging control and testing, as well as equipment segregation, clean out and final product testing. 

“Whether the claim is one of ‘Gluten Free’ or ‘Organic,’ there are strict requirements to ensure no comingling of non-approved inputs that would contaminate the product carrying a regulated claim such as ‘Organic,’” she says. “Robust and verifiable measures for equipment cleaning and segregation must be implemented in the event a facility is making products carrying a specific claim and also making conventional products.”

Wittmus adds that marketing claims can affect the production process in several ways, including managing production schedules, increased sanitation and environmental production flow. “Additionally, our claim of no preservatives is enabled by our high pressure processing technology.”  

So, what technology and machinery can help processors adapt to the ever-changing consumer demands? According to Armstrong, any technology that can assure transparency across the supply chain can help support a process labeling claim. This might include blockchain technology, which can provide a single pool of reliable, real-time information across many supply chain partners.

NSF’s Zweep says there is a consumer demand for minimally processed “fresh” food products with high sensory and nutritional qualities. 

“Conventional thermal processing has detrimental effects on many heat-sensitive nutrients that have functional properties, such as pigments, antioxidants and bioactivity. Non-thermal food processing and preservation methods or ‘gentle’ processing have become popular with food processors because it kills microorganisms with minimal impact on the nutrition, appearance and taste of food.” 

She also notes that high pressure processing technology has become popular by extending shelf life while preserving more of the nutrients and active compounds of fruits and vegetables. 

Wittmus agrees that consumer demands for clean label products without preservatives are made possible with HPP. 

“We have also designed our facility and process to protect and never break the cold chain, allowing us to use fresh ingredients and deliver the freshest flavors. As more consumers are looking for convenience, we have also invested in production and packaging lines to create ready-to-eat, convenient foods that are fresh and delicious,” she says.

Good Foods has recently worked on additional non-GMO claims and high pressure certification. 

“With non-GMO claims, we’ve created an additional sanitation plan along with receiving and storing procedures. With the high pressure certification claim, the process isn’t changed, but requires submission of HACCP/Food Safety documentation for the process for validation,” Wittmus says.

So, what consumers want drives the marketing claims that are ultimately put on food and beverages, and these marketing claims drive the food engineering process. Because truth in advertising really does matter, processors need to be sure that what is claimed is true from farm to fork. 

*The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture, Eise & Hode, New York, N.Y. 2017 

For more information:

Label Insight, www.labelinsight.com
NSF International, www.nsf.org
EAS Consulting, https://easconsultinggroup.com
Cold Pressure Council, www.coldpressurecouncil.org
JBTAvure, www.avure-hpp-foods.com
Good Foods, www.goodfoods.com