France’s food accreditation awards were originally intended as a guarantee of quality, but in recent years both small and large companies have been multiplying food certification schemes as a marketing tool. There are now calls for a rationalisation of such schemes to avoid misleading consumers.

Since the early 1990s, official food certification schemes, such as the Label Rouge and the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC), as well as privately run schemes, have proliferated in France. Originally, these were created by the wine and poultry industries in the mid 1960s to protect higher quality produce from food scares such as that surrounding the use of hormones in poultry farming.

However, the use of certification schemes has become a central element of many companies’ marketing strategy. They facilitate entry into supermarkets and large distribution networks for small and medium-sized producers, or add value and sales volume for the products of larger manufacturers. On average, products carrying a certification label have a retail price approximately 30% higher than equivalent non-certified products. In 2003, the sales value of products with certification labels was €30bn (US$37.2bn), of which €28bn came from products carrying official certifications such as the AOC or the Label Rouge.

The proliferation of these schemes means that their effect is now becoming diluted. Twice as many new products benefit from a certification scheme in France as in Italy. As a result, consumers are confused as to what these forms of accreditation mean, if anything, leading to a loss of confidence. For instance, many French consumers do not realize that all these ‘guarantees’ are not of comparable value.

Some, like the Label Rouge, may be based upon gastronomic quality, while others, like Product of the Year, judge a product’s commercial success. A recent survey showed that 82% of French consumers recognise the Label Rouge, but 48% believe that it is related to the product’s origin, whereas it is in fact simply intended to guarantee a certain gustatory quality. The ‘Conseil National de l’Alimentation’ (National Food Council) has recently submitted a list of 30 recommendations to the French government aiming to resolve these issues. This could be partly achieved by requiring certification to clearly state what each label means, and by introducing a state-sponsored food certification non-proliferation scheme.

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