A guide to the Dutch sustainable certification jungle in food

In the beginning of the new calenetiketwijzerdar year, people tend to stick to new year’s resolutions, such as eating healthier. In supermarkets and other stores choosing healthy/ sustainable products is made easy by means of certification. Certification, mostly in the form of a logo or picture, is a way of branding your product to stand out from your competitors. However, certification options are so broad that consumers have to spend a great deal of time to familiarize themselves with all the available certifications to make an informed choice. To enable the consumer to make an informed choice, the Dutch organization Milieu Centraal (a Dutch public information body on environment and sustainability) published a certification overview on their site, including an app (further keurmerkenwijzer). The keurmerkenwijzer provides an overview of all available certifications (not limited to food) and a ranking of the different organizations responsible for the certification. This blogpost will elaborate on certification in general and recent developments on the national Dutch certification regarding food, including the healthy choice (ik kies bewust) logo. This blog also includes elaboration on two separate apps, the abovementioned keurmerkenwijzer and the EtiketWijzer, which was presented at the Dutch food top 2017 as the replacement for the national certification.

Logo / certification

What is certification? The owner of a certification scheme has a set of rules commonly referred to as private standards, which the owner or a third party enforces. Private standards are voluntary rules, as opposed to national legal norms, which are binding. Food business operators (further: FBOs) can comply with these standards and in return (if they comply) are enabled to use the logo corresponding to those standards. The certification owner owns the logo as well as the standard; usually, the producer pays a fee to the certification owner to use the logo corresponding to the standard. If a FBO complies with a private standard it does not automatically mean the FBO complies with all legal requirements set in national or international law. However, private standards have the tendency to be stricter than national/ international law, and can even encompass rules, which are not part of the national and international law applicable on FBOs.

Scope and enforcement of private standards

Private standards are not limited by geographical area or jurisdiction. This is the reason private standards are used in third countries to ‘up’ the legal standards for the producers in third countries. Private standards contain enforcement measures, often in the form of high fines or exclusion from the private standard. In this way a separate enforcement mechanism is created to enable the certification owner to enforce in case of non-compliance without the interference of the national public enforcement in that particular country. In other words, private standards are a mean to privately enforce (stricter) standards in the food sector.

Rationale certification

Certification schemes are private or semi-private initiatives to enable consumers to see in one view, which products comply with the corresponding standards. Standards can be focused on sustainability, working conditions, animal welfare, or other elements of the production of the product. Even for package material certification schemes are available. FBO’s who bring foodstuffs to the market want to communicate through the use of certification. The incentive for FBOs to use certification on their foodstuff is to persuade consumers to purchase their product.

Large proliferation

A potential problem for FBOs using certification is the proliferation of certification schemes; the number of certification schemes has increased over the years and at this point, over 200 certification schemes exist which focus on sustainability. Research published in 2015 by Milieu Centraal and in 2016 by The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) both linked the diminished trust in certification schemes to the large number of available schemes.

Keurmerkenwijzer

To enable consumers to quickly find the information on certification schemes in general and more information on all individual certifications, including a rating of the schemes, the keurmerkenwijzer was launched by Milieu Centraal. The keurmerkenwijzer provides an overview of all available certification schemes (which focus on sustainability) and provides information to the consumers on the following aspects; environment, animal welfare, social, control and transparency. Because of the wide variety of certification schemes, the State Secretary for Economic Affairs was tasked to find a way to guide consumers in the ‘jungle of certification schemes’, to work towards a more sustainable food consumption. The keurmerkenwijzer is the presented solution to the proliferation of certification schemes.

Heathy choice logo

The Dutch national certification scheme for foodstuffs is the healthy choice logo (het vinkje), which used to be owned by the foundation ‘I make a conscious choice’ (stichting ik kies bewust). There are two separate logos, a green and a blue checkmark. The green is the healthy choice, meaning the product is part of the recommended dietary guidelines as provided by the Health Council of the Netherlands (Gezondheidsraad). The blue logo is the conscious choice, meaning that the product is not taken up in the dietary guidelines, but compared to reference products are healthier than the benchmark product; for instance, the product contains low amounts of salt and saturated fats compared to benchmark foodstuffs. The national legal basis can be found in article 11 of the Commodities Act Decree on food information. In short, the certification has to be well recognized by consumers (they know what it stands for) and the standards should be based on science.

Criticism Healthy Choice logo

A compliant and recognized national (or even Europe-wide) certification could be the solution for consumers to make an informed choice. However, the national certification met resistance from consumer organizations. The resistance against the certification led to the filing of a formal complaint (the link provides the full complaint) by the consumer organization (Consumentenbond). The conscious choice logo was considered non-compliant and misleading. In short, both logos were not as well-known to consumers and the scientific substantiation of the certification is lacking, and thus were not in compliance with the abovementioned national law. The foundation symbolically transferred both logos and the best in class criterion (developed by the foundation) to the minister as a result. The foundation will remain in business until all products containing the logo are no longer on the shelves. However, the foundation will be downsized in the course of 2017. The secretary and the website will remain in business as long as the logo’s are still used on products.

App EtiketWijzer

Instead of a new or ‘improved’ national certification scheme, the decision was taken to develop an app for consumers replacing the certification scheme with an app to make healthier choices in food. Currently, the app (EtiketWijzer) is being developed (test phase) by the Netherlands Nutrition Centre (voedingscentrum). The EtikketenWijzer focuses on the information on the foodstuff as such, instead of the certification schemes. Albert Hein, Jumbo and Superunie, are involved in testing the app. The app currently, only works on certain private brands and premium brand products. By the end of 2017 a version for consumers should be available. The aim of the app is to encompass all foodstuffs (of the retailers participating), available in the final version.

Conclusion

The available certification schemes and corresponding logos are many, because of this ‘jungle’ of available certification schemes consumers lose trust in the available schemes. The app developed by Milieu Centraal enables consumers to get informed easily on all available certification schemes and to rate them. Assuming the number of certification schemes will not diminish drastically, the keurmerkenwijzer could be a helpful tool for consumers to make an informed choice. An option to clear the jungle would be to use a Europe-wide certification scheme. However, developing an app to inform the consumers is in our opinion fighting the symptoms, not the root of the problem; the proliferation of the certification schemes.

The EtiketWijzer potentially covers all foodstuffs, regardless of certification. However, the app is under development and should encompass all available foodstuffs to provide full information on healthy foodstuffs. Perhaps the keurmerkenwijzer could be integrated into the EtiketWijzer to ensure consumers are enabled to quickly access all information on both healthiness and sustainability of the foodstuffs without a proliferation of apps.

The author thanks Floris Kets for his contribution to this post.


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