Why the (white) label on certain food?

FINALLY, there’s some fresh news out of the oven apart from #SG50 or the upcoming elections. BreadTalk is tackling another PR disaster after its LKY bun fiasco that happened in March this year.

In case you haven’t been following local news, BreadTalk came under fire a few days ago after a photograph showing an employee filling up plastic bottles with Yeo’s brand soya bean milk went viral on the web and made it into MSM.

Why the fuss? Some people don’t see an issue with it especially since it’s an ‘open secret’ that some establishments do this ‘white labelling’ of food items with their own logo, such as mineral water or sweets. More on this later.

However, putting a ‘freshly prepared’ label on a product that’s not produced by the company itself is a different ballgame altogether going by the negative reactions on social media that have been blasting the company over the past two days.

It’s like finding out that the chicken rice you paid $20 for at a swanky hotel was bought for $3.50 at the coffee shop from the next building. In this case, BreadTalk was selling a 350ml bottle of “freshly-prepared” soya milk for $1.80 when you can buy a one-litre carton of Yeo’s for $1.50 at the supermarket.

F&B Consultant Isaac Tan, Chief Executive for Rarefied’s Collection of Restaurants & Companies, thinks that the BreadTalk team has surrounded itself with a “bubble of inevitability” due to its size and popularity and “may feel that consumers will always purchase their products, no matter what they put out there’’.

“When a product management team does so, they ignore F&B norms when it comes to packaging and product design, which ultimately leads to a degradation of the product’s integrity as more leeway will always be sought (in how products are packaged for consumers),” said Mr Tan, speaking to The Middle Ground.

BreadTalk has been booming with 837 bakery outlets now, compared to 751 just a year ago. Yesterday the group, which also runs Chinese chain restaurant Din Tai Fung, reported that its second quarter earnings were up 10 percent at $2.89 million.

Rewind a couple of decades, when food labelling regulations for the nutritional value of certain foods were not so stringent. The consumer was at the mercy of advertising companies especially in the case of fast food establishments. No one really bothered about the potential harmful effects a high sodium and sugar diet could do to your body. It was cheap, fast and damn it tasted good.

Regulatory bodies have since stepped in and a whole Pandora’s box of fear-inducing material flooded the market. Documentaries such as ‘Super Size Me’ and ‘Fast Food Nation’ attempted to expose consumers to what the real fast-food industry was up to with images of antibiotic-fed cows and Chicken McNuggets made from pink goo (ewww). Suddenly a whopper didn’t taste that great anymore.

So what’s the point of this story? The point is that through education and awareness, big F&B brands could no longer blindside consumers about how ‘wholesome’ and ‘great’ the items on their menu were once laws were in place about how they advertised and marketed their products so as not to mislead consumers.

But what about ‘white labelling’ of products within the F&B industry? How commonplace is it and when does it become ‘wrong’?

Most supermarket private brand or store brand products are provided by companies that sell to multiple supermarkets, changing only the labels. In addition, some manufacturers create low-cost generic brand labels with only the name of the product such as ‘Cola’. NTUC Fairprice for example carries many of their own branded goods such as milk, vegetables, cooking oil and even soap. House brands under the NTUC label include FairPrice Gold, Pasar, Home Proud and Budget.

However, a more specific definition is needed to tell F&B establishments what they can and cannot do in terms of their offerings so as not to mislead consumers. For example, it’s fine if a burger joint gets its bread and patties from suppliers without it being made in-house and prepares the final product in the kitchen. However, it won’t be fine if the burgers are ordered from McDonalds and the establishment puts a sticker on it before serving customers.

Whose job is is it to keep eyes on such practices? The Advertising Standards Authority? Or is this a job for CASE?

In fact CASE has weighed in by calling the whole episode ‘improper and misleading’ in the original Straits Times article on 5th August which is a good step moving forward but no action has been taken against BreadTalk. Doesn’t CASE have a case, or is it leaving the fight to someone else?

In fact, the PR blowout has been so bad that BreadTalk had to come out and declare that its BREAD is freshly-made!

Should more be done by the authorities or can we simply rely on consumer approbation and disgust? Or are brands like BreadTalk so big that they can get away with this sort of behaviour?

#BREADTALK #whitelabelling #bakery

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