F is for Futility.

That’s the best grade I can muster for a plethora of privately developed new food and produce-rating systems being marketed to consumers these days.

Whole Foods recently introduced its “good,” “better” and “best” Responsibly Grown rating and the oddly appealing “unrated” designation for produce.

Adding to the complexity of the consumer buying decision, Whole Foods said the Responsibly Grown systems was created to “complement, not replace” existing labels for Whole Trade, Fair Trade USA, Rainforest Alliance, Protected Harvest and Demeter Biodynamic. By the way, the rating system doesn’t include local food and organic designations.

Huh?

The latest volley in this ratings game is from the Environmental Working Group, which recently lifted the lid on an app/website that rates a wide variety of grocery store food products, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Called “Food Scores: Rate Your Plate,” the news release describing the tool as an “easy-to-use food database and mobile app that will house ratings and a vast array of other information for more than 80,000 foods from about 1,500 brands in a simple, searchable, online format.”

Of course, EWG boasts the app is the most comprehensive food-rating database available to consumers. Produce marketers will discover top of the chart ratings in the EWG rating system, and the Alliance for Food and Farming notes the irony.

From the Alliance:

 The Environmental Working Group released a new food database today and gave conventional fruits and veggies a “best” score. EWG stated in its press release that of the 80,000 foods it examined only 18% received this high ranking. Since EWG acknowledges that conventional produce is safe, healthy and a “best food,” the Alliance for Food and Farming renews its call for the organization to stop calling these products “dirty” and releasing “good” and “bad” produce lists.

Check out the blog post from the Alliance here.

 The Grocery Manufacturers Association wasn’t impressed with the EWG ratings database, stating in a news release that:

 

“The Environmental Working Group’s food ratings are severely flawed and will only provide consumers with misinformation about the food and beverage products they trust and enjoy.

“The methodology employed by EWG to develop their new food ratings is void of the scientific rigor and objectivity that should be devoted to any effort to provide consumers with reliable nutrition and food safety information. Their ratings are based almost entirely on assumptions they made about the amount, value and safety of ingredients in the products they rate. Adding insult to injury, EWG conducted no tests to confirm the validity of any of their assumptions.

“Not only will the EWG ratings provide consumers with inaccurate and misleading information, they will also falsely alarm and confuse consumers about their product choices. Embedded in the ratings are EWG’s extreme and scientifically unfounded views on everything from low-calorie sweeteners to the nutritional value of organic foods.

“The addition of EWG’s rating scheme to the already crowded landscape of subjective food rating systems underscores the importance of fact-based sources like the government regulated Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredient list as consumers’ best source for consistent, reliable information about food and beverage products.

“The best advice for consumers seeking to achieve and maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle is to follow the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which include eating a variety of foods as recommended by ChooseMyPlate.gov combined with regular physical activity to create an overall healthy lifestyle.

“When it comes to the safety of our products, food and beverage manufacturers adhere to extremely stringent food safety standards and our industry is also highly regulated by experts at the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture. Food safety is our number one priority and we devote enormous resources to ensure that our products are safe.”

 

Other rating systems include , the Glycemic Index, Guiding Stars, Nutripoints,Nutrition IQ, NuVal, Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, POINTS Food System, Naturally Nutrient Rich and ReViver Score.

 And the rating game isn’t over yet. At the chain’s recent sustainability gathering, Wal-Mart noted it has launched its “great for you” icon to “empower consumers to identify healthier food options on store shelves.” What’s more, Wal-Mart pledged to “provide more information and transparency about the products on its shelves so customers can see where an item came from, how it was made, and decode the ingredient label.”

 So add these rating scores to the other choices consumers face at retail. As industry consultant Rick Eastes recently observed in an e-mail, produce pricing and value are harder to determine than ever before.

 "If we then consider the expanding categories to differential one offering of a single produce item, the choices may be; organic produce vs. non-organic, GFSI certified items, Rainforest Alliance, and or third party pesticide certifications and traceability programs. How fresh produce is ultimately priced then becomes complex in the extreme.

The most difficult dilemma for today’s consumers to resolve is how to define “value”. In the past, you could ask a person to define “quality and value”, and at the very least they could say “I know it when I see it”. Today, that ability is a far different task than it was 20 years ago in the produce department."

 

TK: The truism that fruits and vegetables are good for you is almost as universally embraced as the statement that “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.” Retailers and others who try to implement their own stoplight rating systems within the produce department will only give consumers a reason to unlearn what they know to be true.