As the recession cuts deeper into the profits of big food companies, many brands are downsizing their portions in a bid to cut costs. In some cases, they are also downgrading their ingredients. But as chocolate giant Cadbury is discovering – you mess with your iconic brands at your peril.
Cadbury’s current advertising campaign involves eyebrow gymnastics from two children. Meanwhile, it has made some eyebrow-raising changes to the formulation of its popular Dairy Milk block in Australia and New Zealand. The new chocolate block is smaller, contains fewer cocoa solids (you know, the part that actually makes it chocolate) and it contains environmentally destructive palm oil. It now finds itself at the centre of a PR storm, having incurred the wrath of shoppers, foodies and environmentalists alike. Whittakers, a rival chocolate brand in New Zealand, is taking advantage of the furore with this comparative shopping ad.
The first change is simple – the 250g block now weighs just 200g. The packaging has been redesigned and the squares of chocolate shrunken so the block actually appears to be the same size. Chocolate lovers are furious at the resizing and the fact that the price has not dropped accordingly and have formed a protest site, at choclovers.org, and have been spreading the message via Twitter and a Facebook protest group. Cadbury says in the FAQ on its website (Australia and New Zealand) that it has actually reduced the wholesale price but it’s up to retailers whether to pass it on.
Product resizing is annoying for consumers but nothing new – and given that people eat more when the serving sizes are bigger, it might not be such a bad thing for the public health. It’s the second change that is more concerning from an environmentalist’s point of view.
Cadbury has reduced the amount of cocoa solids from 26% to 21% and added nasty vegetable fats – specifically palm oil – to compensate. The company claims that it’s done this, not to save costs as you might think, but to improve the customer experience.
We have done this for a number of reasons. Primarily it is because our consumers have been telling us that we could improve their enjoyment of our chocolate by making it slightly softer to bite. Vegetable fat helps deliver this softness whilst at the same time maintaining our chocolate’s great taste.
As a chocolate lover myself, I’m not so credulous that I believe that Cadbury has done this for my benefit. I know a bit about food and chocolate and there is no doubt that palm oil is a poor substitute for the real thing. I am pretty sure most chocolate fans would feel the same way – despite what Cadbury’s “independent research” might show. I’m probably not their market, though – I tend to go for more quality brands such as Green & Black’s, the organic brand now owned by Cadbury, and Lindt.
However, there are millions of people who do buy Cadbury chocolate so the formulation of their products is part of a bigger problem. The forests of southeast Asia have been ravaged by deforestation, spelling disaster for wildlife such as orangutans and tigers and for the climate. Palm oil production is one of the leading causes of this – both historically and currently.
The main customers of palm oil are food manufacturers looking for cheap fats – though demand is also rising because of its utility as a biofuel. The rainforest of the Congo could be next, with China set to establish a giant palm oil plantation in the African country. It is ironic that Cadbury’s last big advertising campaign involved a gorilla.
We are Board members of the RSPO [Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil] and purchase Green Palm certificates that independently certify the fact that the palm oil we purchase has come from sustainable sources.
The RSPO has a set of standards, its Principles & Criteria, that define practices for sustainable palm oil production. These include the use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers, the responsible development of new plantings and environmental responsibility and the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity.
All well and good, except that the RSPO is widely regarded as greenwash – members have to do little more than pay a membership fee. Even the bible for big business, the Wall Street Journal reports that it’s a problem. The Green Palm Certificates, meanwhile, allow backers to invest in sustainable production without necessarily using the product. Even if Cadbury could be certain that it is buying palm oil from sustainable sources, which is dubious, it is still creating new demand for palm oil. Replacing existing palm oil for a ‘sustainable’ alternative is one thing, but it does not help matters if it is additional consumption.
No one seems convinced – and the backlash is huge. In most recent news, the Auckland Zoo has stopped stocking Cadbury, in the name of the orangutans.
Image via Treehugger