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Global Investigation, Discussion and Case Studies

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Update: The Mars / Galaxy Rainforest Alliance Certification.

In 2010 the chocolate company Galaxy, which is part of Mars, applied the Rain Forest Alliance approval label on their chocolate bars. This is because the cocoa they source comes from Rainforest Alliance certified farms. When you look at the chocolate bar packaging with its bold Rain Forest Alliance label proudly displayed on the front, you would no doubt assume that it could only possibly be awarded such a certification if all the ingredients were rainforest friendly ... Wrong. One of the other key ingredients in a Galaxy bar is palm oil, allegedly from plantations which continue to destroy millions of acres of the last remaining of rainforest each year. It is now estimated that the rainforests being cleared for palm oil plantations will have all disappeared within 9 years from 2010, and with it the end of entire species such as the orang-utan.
In 2008, The BBC's "Really Disgusting Foods" programme approached Mars-Galaxy on this ethical inconsistency. The programme was fobbed off with a typical pseudo-sincere company statement which said that Mars "aim" to move towards 100% sustainable palm oil sources by 2015. Meanwhile,
their website explains how "proud" they are to be the first global chocolate company to commit to the Rain Forest Alliance certification. Not mentioning of course that they may continue to use "rainforest destroying" palm oil for at least another 6 years, and that in 9 years there may be no rainforest left at all... So nothing really to be proud of then.
The Rain Forest Alliance certification principles are bewildering. Their mission is to apparently "conserve biodiversity" and "transform consumer behaviour". However, they have devised a "seal of approval" labelling system that apparently allows a manufacturer to use it on a product which also includes ingredients directly responsible for rainforest destruction. The excuse they gave Alex Riley from the BBC's "Really Disgusting Foods" programme is absurd. They say that in Galaxy's case it is only the cocoa in the product they are certifying ... not the whole product. The average consumer buying a "Rain Forest Certified" product such as a Galaxy chocolate bar would be none the wiser of this. Although we otherwise applaud the Rainforest Alliance's efforts in their other protection projects, we are very disappointed that, due to ill-conceived labelling approval conditions, their certification system is clearly left open to manufacturers abuse and this raises questions about the ethical integrity of such a seal of approval. Rainforest Alliance also mention on their website that their certification gives consumers a choice to vote to protect rainforests by spending their money on such approved products. We think the most sensible thing a consumer can do is choose a product which doesn't contain any rainforest destroying ingredients at all.

The two relevant parts of the BBC programme " ...Really Disgusting Food" can be found on YouTube.

First Part: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqkYbAhx9oE

Second Part: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVG79jtUz1k

The "A" of the NOVA Key can only be left uncrossed if ALL the product's ingredients have not originated from plantations created through the destruction of rainforest habitats.

Labelling in the UK and the worldwide labelling fiasco

The United Kingdom is leading a trend towards providing a wealth of information on its food products ... to the point where everyday consumers are overwhelmed by lines of symbols and indecipherable nutritional information. A quick glance at a product to check ethical suitability can turn your shopping experience into a hair-ripping fiasco - The game is called scrutinize-the-label and this has become an increasing pastime for many ethically minded shoppers, not just in the UK but the world over. This is because, the "powers-that-be" seem to think that a consumer is happy to spend hours standing in a shop dissecting the wording on labels. First you have to wade through reams of nutritional wording before finding the actual ingredients listing - even smaller and harder-to-read - but which is in fact the info most people with ethical or dietary preferences really need to know. Ask any consumer what aspects of a product's information is most important to them and most will say they need to know how natural or not the item is - Is it or isn't it suitable for vegetarians - Is it or isn't it organic - Has it been tested on animals. If some consumers don't particularly care about any of these ethical choices they are often even less likely to care about the nutritional values of a product ... So why are UK consumers being bombarded with confusing dietary info? Apparently it's because the country is getting too fat. To try and curb obesity, consumers are foremost provided with tables and figures to explain how fatter they might get if they eat the packet of biscuits they are pondering over in the supermarket aisle. Although providing dietary information on a food product is a good thing, do people really consider weighing up all the figures these labels provide before choosing to by the product or not? We think not. Such dietary labelling should be displayed in a sensible proportion on the packaging, so if consumers want to do the maths before buying the product then they can. Our research shows that checking the NOVA Key is of priority interest for the ethical consumer while automatically providing an ample, quick-look indicator for general health considerations. Consumerism and environmental ethics are fast becoming an inseparable marketing combination and our voters realize that the NOVA Key is the answer to solving what has become an otherwise over-complex labelling conundrum.

"Current labelling systems are a farce - particularly "V" for vegetarian and Organic (Bio) - After your weekly shop the chances that you have inadvertently bought products which are against your ethical preference are extremely high."

If you browse the aisles of any supermarket in the UK you can find hundreds of product examples, which leave you confused as to whether or not they are vegetarian friendly or animal friendly.
Here is a typical example of veggie labelling confusion. Waitrose is a popular supermarket chain in the UK. Their self-applied policy is to "V" label many of their own brands suitable for veggies. At the time of writing it's own brand of Bran Flakes did not contain a "V" label, but the Kellogg's equivalent did. Does this mean that Waitrose Bran Flakes contains parts of dead animals but the Kellogg's version doesn't? Or is it that Waitrose forgot to put a "V" label on this particular product? (even though they label all their cereals otherwise). Waitrose have, however confirmed that their Bran Flakes do not contain animal products. They have simply forgotten to print a "V" label on the box.
Nestle's "Cinnamon Grahams" are suitable for veggies while "Golden Grahams" are not according to Nestle UK's vegetarian listing*. But to confuse us further, neither product shows any indication on the packet which or which isn't suitable for veggies.
Because there are some breakfast cereals, sweets, biscuits etc. that do contain animal products, this random labelling practice just confuses vegetarian shoppers. However, many veggies might buy unlabelled breakfast cereal, naively thinking that it must be an oversight that it's not labelled. Surely a breakfast cereal can't possibly contain dead animals? Well in fact quite a few do.
And to confuse things even more, a vegetarian might buy a pot of yoghurt assuming that all yoghurts are surely vegetarian? But a closer look at the ingredients shows that some brands contain gelatine.
Where certain brands of chocolate display veggie labels, many others don't - and again many chocolate bars and sweets contain parts of dead animals.
It's a minefield of uncertainty, and this is just the very tip of the iceberg.

*Nestle UK online Vegetarian Products list January 2002

Awareness and naivety on "vegetarian" and "organic" labelling in USA, Europe, Australia and elsewhere

Some countries have no form of veggie labelling whatsoever.
The United States focus on additive listings rather than a products' suitability for vegetarians. This is simply due to legislative reasons aimed to protect manufacturers against lawsuits from consumers who may suffer allergic reactions to food additives. In fact food manufactures in the US are reluctant to label foods for vegetarian suitability.
In the UK and other parts of Europe however, labelling foods has taken on a promotional identity all of it's own, particularly since the organic revolution. Some manufactures are labelling foods "organic" even though the product may always have been "organic" it's a good excuse to raise the price of the product.
Giving your product a greener profile is all rage, and since the UK have begun veggie and organic (bio) labelling, some supermarkets and manufactures have turned this to their commercial advantage. Selling "green" is now big business; and of course any positive effect towards promoting foods and other products that are environmentally or ethically friendly is a good thing. However, it's becoming increasingly noticeable that subliminally misleading labelling along with green-style promotion is exploiting both meat-eaters and vegetarians equally. A NOVA Key voter in Australia pointed out a that a product claiming suitablility for vegans contained egg.
Via our Australia and New Zealand corespondents we are noticing quite a few ethical labelling discrepancies or sheer naivety by manufacturers and sellers.

There are many naive shoppers who believe that because a product displays an "organic label, it must surely be suitable for vegetarians. Organic wine is a good example, since it's not necessarily suitable for vegetarians. It only means that the grapes used to make the wine are grown without the use of chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers. However, the clarifying and fining agents used in the wine making process can contain various animal derivatives including blood, gelatine, and isinglass - which comes from the bladder of the sturgeon fish. Cheeses that are made with organic milk may well contain animal derived rennet. A ready-made organic vegetable soup could have non-vegetarian Worcester sauce in it (which contains anchovies). In Germany we find many cases of food products displayed in "Vegetarian" sections labelled as "Bio" (their description for "organic") but which contain animal products (more on German labelling below). In fact, organic or Bio labelling has become such an over-hyped trend in Europe that consumers are becoming increasingly sceptical of its validity.

The NOVA Key also investigates labelling across Europe. Although the European Union is supposed to regulate some kind of consistency relating to products it sells within its borders, (the most bizarre being the correct "curve" of a banana) our research shows that EU countries overall have a labelling structure that is wide open to multiple interpretations. Much boils down to each country having different consumer habits. In Germany for example, there is now a strong trend towards "bio" products, which also ties in with mainland Europe's more localized approach towards food sourcing. UK supermarket consumers still revel in being able to cheaply buy almost anything they can think off, imported from every corner of the world at any time of the year. But countries like Germany traditionally prefer to shop for locally sourced seasonal products from town markets ... Fresher, tastier and cheaper with only a few food kilometres to contribute to its carbon costs. Sourcing foods from local growers also means the products can be trusted, according to NOVA Key research in Germany. Although the "bio" labelling trend has integrated into the German shopping experience quite seamlessly, German's are beginning to question the validity of "bio" because so many imported bio-labelled products are flooding the market of which there is no defined level of how "bio" (organic) a product actually is. As with many countries, there is no legislation as to how organic a product is before it can be labelled as such, and with so many dubious imported products claiming to be bio, faith in the product is waning fast. The word "bio" is being slapped on so many products, which clearly contain a random percentage of non-bio ingredients, that products not labelled bio may just as easily be considered bio in comparison. Meanwhile there is hardly a single food product sold in Germany describing whether it is suitable for vegetarians. When the term vegetarian is used, it's applied so loosely to the point where more often than not the product (often in restaurant foods) isn't actually veggie at all. Just like in the UK, some of the hedonistic or pretentious Germans call themselves vegetarians even though they eat fish, non-veggie cheeses and platefuls of patisserie style cakes full of gelatine. During our investigations even long-established cheese shops in this traditionally meat-fuelled country don't know what cheeses they sell contain animal rennet or not. (But even in the UK we have come up against this ignorance.) And finally, never assume that something which is called "vegetarisch" in a German restaurant actually is pure vegetarian.
In Italy, the bio
revolution is in full swing, and in such a corrupted way that if everything that the Italian food industry claimed to produce in it's own country really was bio, as claimed on the packaging (for example olive oil) there wouldn't be enough space in Italy to actually grow it all.
So, if you are a "real" vegetarian living in mainland Europe, the NOVA Key sympathizes with your frustration. Get in touch with your concerns and stories when you
Vote for the NOVA Key

A loosely applied trend where fashion and compassion get all mixed up.

Carefully worded descriptions on trendy package designs suggesting healthy and environmentally safe eating (and wearing), is a lucrative selling point for the manufacturing industries. Lifestyle-designed packaging is what can sell a food product over any ethical or dietary preference. This can often leave the contents inside the package falling short of a conscientious consumer's expectations. Equally, consumers are becoming more health conscious about what they are eating and manufacturers have taken advantage of the trend, which means labelling that promotes the product's health qualities is now smothering any clear indication of its ethical suitability for everybody.
Style rather than ethical principles sells to the less judicious shopper, who simply takes a product complete with its reassuring sound-bite at face value. While affluent, pretend-vegetarians might revel in a product's symbolism, foods like "organic pesto sauce", for example, certainly doesn't make it vegetarian; because it may well contain animal derivatives. A supermarket trolley filled with style statements means more profit to manufacturers simply because a growing number of
pseudo-ethical shoppers are more influenced by social symbolism: a statement about what looks good on their kitchen shelves as a "caring, ethical representation" rather than really understanding about the product's true origins.
Even own-brand shops have begun to recognize labelling as a selling point because of this trend particularly "organic". But then in August 2005, the reality of pseudo-labelling to appeal to trendy shoppers reared its head:

The UK Sunday newspaper "The Observer" published an article revealing that many food manufacturers are falsifying their products. Some manufacturers are claiming that their foods are organic when they aren't. We applaud the Observer's findings for confirming what we have always suspected, that manufacturers are cheating consumers with false organic labelling. This revelation raises the urgency more than ever to introduce the NOVA Key as a legal requirement - and as soon as possible.

We need a clear non-partisan labelling system now ... more than ever

Without a two-way clarification process that the NOVA Key can provide, ethical labelling used as a lifestyle statement will always be open to double standards. Product labelling should not only be applied to adhere to country rulings or appease the lifestyle-obsessed consumer - and therefore spuriously profit the seller... it must also be considered a prerequisite condition of manufacturing, with a duty to provide true ethical clarity - either way, which in turn helps them to improve their product with greener credentials if they so wish.
What the consumer still faces because of a shambolic labelling hyperbole, is inconsistency and ignorance in the food, restaurant and consumer goods industries, often because so many producers supermarkets and restaurants simply don't know what constitutes organic, vegetarian, natural or modified and animal or forest-friendly. Even some certification organisations are showing ineptitude in how their labelling is applied. Labelling abuse is becoming a more common occurrence every day, but we believe that the nonpartisan NOVA Key labelling will begin to slow this trend.
As one NOVA Key voter has commented "I see no reason for manufacturers not to do this (use the NOVA Key) unless they are ashamed of their products"

Read NOVA Key Voters Comments Pages

Case Studies

001.
In late 2002 there were a couple of incidents of Black Widow spiders being found in grapes sold in UK supermarkets, which hadn't been treated with chemical pesticides. It's important to stress that such incidents are extremely rare and should not reflect on any safety aspects of organic produce. In such cases it's simply the lack of proper screening and washing of these natural products at the picking and packing stages. The companies involved need to raise screening standards to help eliminate such incidents completely. "Real" organic produce doesn't need this kind of negative publicity.

Please use the voting form to send us mislabelling or other related incidents

002.
In a popular UK supermarket I picked up a bag of their own brand fresh salad with a sachet of salad dressing and a sachet of Parmesan cheese inside the packaging. It had a clear "v" label on the wrapper saying "suitable for vegetarians" Realizing how hard it is to source vegetarian Parmesan, and knowing how expensive it is, I asked the supermarket manager to check that this was actually veggie Parmesan. A few days later I received a phone call from the supermarket manager who said that he had conformation from their nutrition department that the Parmesan was definitely vegetarian. Two weeks later however, I picked up the same own brand product in the same supermarket only to find that the "V" label had mysteriously disappeared.

Please use the voting form to send us mislabelling or other related incidents

003.
I'm a regular visitor to Pizza Express, a restaurant chain in the UK. On a visit to one of their restaurants in 2001 I asked the waiter if they had any vegetarian Parmesan cheese. He went away to ask either the manager or chef and came back with a small plate of grated Parmesan, stating it was "definitely vegetarian". A few months later I went into another Pizza Express Restaurant and asked the same question. This time the reply was (and quite rightly) that their Parmesan was definitely not vegetarian, and never has been in Pizza Express.
Ironically, before they put a "V" label on the bottle, I got this response from Pizza Express regarding the Worcester Sauce in their lovely salad dressing:
..."I can assure you that we would not declare a product to be vegetarian if it was not." ...

Please use the voting form to send us mislabelling or other related incidents

004.
In the UK,
supermarkets display ethical guides on their products which often turn out to be added in an inconsistent manner, and often only used as marketing leverage. Waitrose make quite a big thing about splashing around the "V" sign and even the "O" sign on their own label products, sometimes rather contentiously as The NOVA Key has discovered.
One Waitrose snack is called " Indonesian Style Vegetable Crackers". On first and even second look you might be easily fooled into thinking that these vegetable crackers where suitable for vegetarians, especially with the green coloured background of the packaging. Only when you find the tiny print on the "Allergens" section on the back you'll learn that it "may contain ... shellfish".
The product seems to have disappeared from their shelves recently, so maybe someone complained - or Waitrose read this case study.

This example shows how ludicrously ineffective one-sided labelling can be if not supported by NOVA Key labelling.

Please use the voting form to send us mislabelling or other related incidents

005.
Since early 2006 Tesco have redesigned their vitamin and mineral supplement packaging to target shoppers by gender; "Women's Health" or "Men's Health". For example, according to Tesco iron requirement is just a women's thing and is specifically labelled Women's Health. But iron is often an equally important supplement for both men and women particularly on a vegetarian diet. With Tesco's pointless labelling, men and women may now be irritated when trying to buy everyday supplements that may have always been used equally by either gender. We contacted Tesco (as an ordinary shopper) about their sex discriminating labelling but they never replied.

Please use the voting form to send us mislabelling or other related incidents

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What You Can Do In Your Own Time To Help

UNITED KINGDOM and IRELAND site visitors

Due to the current state of labelling practices in the UK, it's worth keeping a vigilant eye open for products with "V" or "O" style labels on them. And if you have doubts about a product's authenticity as being totally meat free or organic etc, then contact the stores management or the producers themselves. Tell us about it as we will keep this site updated with your reports.
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Europe Mainland, USA, Canada, Australia, Asia and New Zealand site visitors

Your observations and information about the labelling situation in your country is vital to our NOVA Key campaign. Tell us your thoughts and findings as we will keep this site updated with your reports.
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