Labels That Tell a Story

How do you communicate food quality? “The concept of quality doesn’t mean anything any more, it’s become an empty, abstract word,” claims Piero Sardo, president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. He was speaking at a public meeting held today at Cheese 2011 to discuss Slow Food’s vision for food labels.

The tasting method traditionally used to establish if a product is excellent is inadequate, he said. “You have a group of six or seven people tasting wines blind, maybe 150 wines a day for three or four days. There are psychological mechanisms at play and inevitably you end up favoring the wines with the biggest impact. Instead you should be choosing those that express an equilibrium, a relationship with their territory.”

“I don’t believe in blind evaluations,” he continued. “People think if you hide the label you can evaluate a wine independently, but you should know what winery a wine comes from, how it works, where it is, is it organic, is it at a disadvantage or an advantage, is it in the mountains or the plains. Otherwise you can only make a partial evaluation.”

The ideal way to recount a product and its quality, he said, was for the producer to talk directly to the consumer. But where that isn’t possible, how can you tell the story of the product? Through the label.

Sardo then gave a few examples of advertising and packaging from the 1950s and the 2000s. In the past, he said, the only thing that counted was the brand. No other information was communicated. Now brands like Coca-Cola, De Cecco and Barilla want to tell a story. But, he said, these stories say nothing about the product, or they’re so generic as to be practically meaningless.

He then presented an example of the kind of label Slow Food wants its Presidia producers to start using, full of highly specific information relating to production methods, ingredients, dates, and more. For example, the list of ingredients for a cheese can read simply “milk, rennet.” In Sardo’s example, the list reads: “Milk from farm’s own Italian Alpine Brown cows and/or hybrids crossed with Alpine Brown, fed on hay and GMO-free protein supplements (corn, soy, field beans), without winter silage, pastured in the mountains for three months in the summer; liquid veal rennet purchased from xxxxx; Italian sea salt.”

“This is the indispensable minimum. This is not poetry. This is correctness of information,” he said. “Industrial production has something to hide so of course they are going to stay as generic as possible until the law forces them to disclose something.”

He acknowledged that applying this kind of label to all Presidia products would be no easy task, and a debate with some of the Presidium producers present brought up some of the logistical, practical and legal problems. “It will be hard, but we’ll do it,” Sardo concluded.

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