How supposedly good intentions almost killed a chocolate company
Ritter Sport wins critical labeling battle in Munich Supreme Court
I’m sure most of you are familiar with Ritter Sport, that Waldenbuch, Germany–based manufacturer of those wonderful, square-shaped chocolate bars. The 102-year-old, family-run company has always provided a classic example of how good branding, quality ingredients, state-of-the-art processing and corporate citizenry can produce a global success story.
Recently, the company has been in a litigious court case involving claims that its natural flavoring description on the label of its Whole Hazelnut Chocolate bar was incorrect. Stiftung Warentest, a Berlin-based consumer protectionist group claimed that the chemical flavoring piperonal used in production of the bars was extracted artificially.
Last week, the Munich State Superior Court dismissed an appeal by Stiftung from an earlier court decision, one that had ruled the piperonal extraction process was natural. As Thomas Seeger, head of Ritter Sport’s legal department exclaimed, "The decision is correct. It shows that even Stiftung Warentest cannot put arbitrary statements into circulation which are without any basis. Just because Stiftung Warentest was unaware of any suitable process for extracting natural piperonal, those in charge concluded there had been a breach of the flavoring regulations – on the motto, 'If I haven't heard of it, then it can't exist' – and said our most important product was legally unmarketable. To this day Stiftung Warentest has failed to show viable proof for its assertion."
As the company went on to explain in its press release, Stiftung Warentest came to question piperonal as a natural flavoring while conducting a product test last November. In doing so, the issue of legally marketing the item arose.
To counter the threat that the retail trade would drop the chocolate, which would have threatened the very existence of the iconic company, Ritter Sport obtained an interim injunction before Munich State Divisional Court I.
When the court ruled for Ritter and against Stiftung Warentest, the latter appealed the ruling.
The most recent ruling by the Munich State Superior Court follows close scrutiny of the manufacturing process. As a result, Ritter Sport and Symrise AG, the supplier of piperonal, demonstrated that a number of processes, some of them patented, could extract piperonal in a natural way from laurel plants, including extraction at an industrial level.
Moreover, Symrise submitted a sworn statement by an expert concluding that the source materials and production process were natural within the meaning of the EU Food Flavorings Regulation.
In the end, the authorities were unable to identify any breach of current labeling regulations. "We could wish that Stiftung Warentest had lived up to its own standards and admitted to having made a mistake – just as it has always called upon the companies to do," adds Thomas Seeger. "Instead of which, discrediting the production plant and supply chain is an ineffectual attempt to distract attention from its own mistakes and failures. That does nothing to promote consumer awareness; thus, in the end, the charge of consumer deception can only rebound against Stiftung Warentest."
One can certainly appreciate Seeger’s sentiments. At one point, it looked like a famed chocolate company might have to close shop as a result of its largest selling product being erroneously singled out for mislabeling.
Now, according to my preliminary research, Stiftung Warentest is generally recognized as a forthright organization. Nonetheless, because of the large number of product investigations the group conducts, many of these investigations are done by independent test institutes. And, as we all know, no one’s perfect.
But thanks to the legal system in Germany, Ritter Sport was able to prove that — at least in this case — Stiftung Warentest was wrong. Nonetheless, it was a costly legal effort, no doubt.
So there’s a lesson here for all of us. Traceability is critical. But being correct doesn’t protect you from criticism or from nearly being shut down.