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Marketing Gone Wild: The Use And Abuse Of Food Safety ‘Certifications’

The produce industry has come to work so hard on food safety. This is seen collectively through institutions such as the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the Center for Produce Safety.

It is also true on an individual company level. Anyone who has been involved in the produce trade for an extended period has seen an enormous increase in attention and commitment on food safety issues, especially following the Spinach Crisis of 2006.

But each company and the industry as a whole has to make sure the marketing efforts don’t get ahead of themselves. Particularly, those who offer seals or indicias or who use them in their marketing have a responsibility to make sure that these are not misused to imply things that are not justified..

We check out a lot of industry web sites and we find these seals are often misused.

Many are at fault and sometimes these situations are inadvertent, caused by web designers handed a bunch of logos and not understanding. But in the end, every company has a responsibility to not exaggerate its food safety credentials.

One web page we looked at, from a substantial company that has actually been the focus of food safety concerns, offers an example of the problem more common than would be desirable. As part of its webpage, the company has a bunch of logo graphics and corresponding type. Here are the words:


• Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Compliant

• Safe Quality Food (SQF) Certified

• Primus Certified

• Produce Marketing Association Gold Circle, Advancing Food Safety Certified

• United States Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism Cooperative

The most obvious and most egregious problem here is the use of PMA’s Gold Circle in this fashion.

Gold Circle is a terrific program through which PMA member companies so inclined can donate an extra $1,000 to support food safety and consumer communication efforts. It is a very industry-minded thing to support, and any company that supports it deserves a hat tip.

It is not, however, in any way, a “certification” of anything. All it means is a company donated $1,000. That is it. PMA doesn’t inspect companies. PMA has no idea if a firm’s food safety program is good or not. All this means is the check didn’t bounce.

To imply that this is a certification is to deceive.

Obviously this company should change its web site. Other firms should check theirs, and PMA should issue a reminder to all other Gold Circle members about the appropriate use of this logo. It is fine to use it to demonstrate that a company is supportive of industry food-safety efforts — but it should not imply certification by PMA.

Besides protecting the integrity of the logo, if PMA does not act to stop these types of claims, one day someone will sue PMA, claiming it was complicit in the implication that PMA had certified this company in some way and thus had liability. That risk is not worth $1,000.

This may be the most egregious example, but most of these types of claims are too broad.

Primus-certified? What in the world does that mean? Primus does have a Platinum Supplier program, and one if its benefits is allowing use of the Primus logo — but this company is not listed on the Primus web site as a Platinum Program member. More importantly, though, what is the implication a buyer or consumer – this is an open web site — should draw from this? That if one buys from this company, every box has been certified in some way by Primus? We doubt that is true as the company whose website we took this from sells many products from many different places. In all probability the company buys “shorts” from other shippers and terminal markets. Even if the company does not and all its product is certified, the obvious question is certified for what? Primus will certify product to be organic. It has a pesticide-certification program, GAP, GMP, PrimusGFS, etc.

SQF-certified? It is even less likely that every box sold has SQF certification in this diverse company.     

GFSI isn’t a certification at all, and the company whose website we drew this from is known to have, in at least some cases, required that suppliers do only standard GMP audits, not GFSI audits.

In fact of all these claims of “certifications,” the only one we could endorse would be the claim that the company is certified as a partner in the United States Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism Cooperative, which is actually a claim that applies to the company, not the product.

The truth is that these kinds of certifications mostly apply to specific fields or specific plants for specific things. They typically don’t apply to companies at all.

This may be a distinction without a difference if one is a fresh-cut processor and all the plants are certified the same way and there is a requirement that all growing operations be certified the same way, or if one is a grower/shipper/packer and all the fields are certified the same way and the packing house is certified one way.

But for most, these logos should be used specifically and in a limited way: “Our company supports industry food-safety efforts by contributing to PMA’s Gold Circle campaign to advance food safety.”

“Our fresh-cut facility in Los Angeles is certified annually by Primus Labs to meet the Global British Retail Consortium standard.”

Claiming lots of “certifications” that don’t exist or are easily misinterpreted indicates a company is less concerned about food safety than marketing food safety. Nothing good can come of that, and owners of these trademarks should be vigilant in preventing their misuse.

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