Do Britons know what food quality labels mean?

Connor IbbetsonData Journalist
January 19, 2022, 10:59 AM GMT+0

YouGov puts six common food labels to the test

A Netflix documentary released earlier this year ­­– Seaspiracy – cast doubt on the concept of sustainable fishing. It specifically criticised the Marine Stewardship Council, the organisation behind the ‘Blue Tick’ label commonly seen on seafood products. Following this, new YouGov research looks at what Britons make of major third-party food certification labels and whether they affect their shopping habits.

How recognisable are food labels?

Of the six labels asked about, the most widely recognised was the British Lion mark, a food safety label commonly used on UK eggs. Some 82% of people recognise this label – including 37% who say they think they know exactly what it means.

Another 74% of Britons recognise the Red Tractor symbol, which is used on a variety of farmed goods including meat, dairy, and vegetable products, and means products can be traced to their farm of origin.

An additional seven in ten people (70%) say they are familiar with the Fairtrade logo – used to determine products that meet the specific standards of the Fairtrade Association which aim to give farmers a better price for their produce.

Approaching two thirds (62%) recognise the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ‘Blue Tick’ label, awarded only to fishers meeting the MSC sustainability guidelines. A similar proportion (61%) say the same of the RSPCA’s ‘Assured’ label, which is used on products from farms that meet the higher animal welfare standards of the RSCPA. However, only 22% of people were “exactly” sure of what each of these last two labels denote.

The least well-recognised label of the six labels YouGov asked about was the Soil Association’s ‘Organic’ label (51%), used on products meeting strict organic standards. Only 18% say they know exactly what this label shows, however.

Some 87% of people aged 18-24 recognise the Fairtrade label – including two-thirds (66%) who say they know exactly what it means. This is compared to 53% of those aged 55 and over who recognise it, among whom just 18% think they know the exact meaning behind the logo.

By contrast, those aged 55 and over are more likely to recognise the British Lion mark (85%) compared to those aged between 18 and 24 (66%). This older age group is also twice as likely to say they think they completely understand the meaning of the British Lion mark (42% versus 20% respectively).

Elsewhere 75% of people from ABC1 backgrounds recognise the Fairtrade logo, and a further 55% recognise the Soil Association’s ‘Organic’ label – compared to 62% and 46% of people from C2DE backgrounds who said the same, respectively. There was no significant difference between these groups for the Red Tractor or British Lion labels, however.

What do Brits think third party food labels mean?

While Britons may think they know what these labels mean, is this actually the case? The public were given a list of characteristics and asked to pick which they thought each label was meant to show.

Some three quarters of people who recognised the Fairtrade label (equivalent to 40% of the general public) picked out that the Fairtrade logo does indeed mean the product in question is fair trade – with products using the logo required to meet fair trade standards. Another 21% (11% of the public) think the Fairtrade label means the product is made using more sustainable methods, and 10% (5% of the public) think it represents a higher quality product.

Nearly seven in ten (68%) of those who recognised the Soil Association’s ‘Organic’ logo (representing 27% of the wider public) think it means the product displaying it is organic. Another quarter (26%, equivalent to 10% of the population) say the label means the product is made using more sustainable methods, and 13% (or 5% of the whole public) think it means higher animal welfare standards.

The 66% of those who recognise the label (equivalent to 31% of the public) are right in thinking that the RSPCA ‘Assured logo’ is only for products that adhere to higher levels of animal welfare. Some 16% who recognise the label (8% of the general public) think that the RSCPA ‘Assured’ logo also means animal products using it are free range, however, the RSCPA website states chickens raised indoors can display the logo provided other conditions such as natural daylight are met.

Around half (57%) of people who recognise it (representing a total of 27% of the wider public) think the MSC ‘Blue Tick’ denotes products that have been more sustainably produced. While sustainable fishing is the core requirement for fisheries to use the logo, this was called in question by Seaspiracy as noted earlier. One in four (28%) people who recognise the logo think it means they have been produced to higher standards of animal welfare.

The British Lion mark denotes that the egg has come from a British farm – something correctly picked out by 42% among those who recognised the label (equivalent to a recognition rate of 29% of all Britons). A further 28% of those who know the label (19% of the public), think it means higher animal welfare standards – however eggs from caged hens can still display the mark. Another 27% of people familiar with the label (the same as 19% of all Britons) say the British Lion mark means higher safety standards, also correct as farmers using it must adhere to increased hygiene controls and salmonella testing.

Despite being among the more recognised logos, people are least sure of what the Red Tractor symbol actually means. A third of those who recognise it (34%) – or one in five (21%) people overall – think it means higher standards of welfare for animals. This is partially true, as while animals do not have to be free range to use the symbol, the Red Tractor Association standards do require chickens to have 10% more space than the law requires. Another 34% of those who recognise the label think the symbol denotes higher safety standards. Another 31% familiar with the label (equivalent to 19% of the general population) are correct in thinking it means produce sourced from within the UK.

Do food labels influence shopping habits?

Do these labels change the way Britons shop, however? YouGov’s research suggests that Britons tend to prefer products that display them, but do not actively seek products that have these labels. There is little significant difference between the types of logos when it comes to this attitude, with 44% of people thinking this about the RSCPA ‘Assured’ logo, the Red Tractor logo (42%), the Fairtrade logo (42%), the Soil Association ‘Organic’ logo (41%). Opinion is similar for the MSC ‘Blue Tick’ (37%) and the British Lion (37%).

That being said, a quarter (26%) of Brits say they actively look for products displaying the MSC ‘Blue Tick’, while the same proportion say this for the Fairtrade logo. Another 25% and 24% say they look for products with the British Lion mark and Red Tractor label respectively. However, slightly fewer people say they look for products with the RSCPA ‘Assured’ logo (18%) and the Soil Association ‘Organic’ logo (16%).

See full results here

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