A new Internet portal aimed at cracking down on food-labeling fraud in Germany went live this week - and crashed almost immediately under the high volume of traffic. The site has the attention of both friends and foes.
This imitation ham has less than 40 percent meat content
The new "lebensmittelklarheit.de" platform invites consumers in Germany to blow the whistle on food products they believe carry misleading or even false information about ingredients and their origins.
The website, financed by the German Ministry of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, has drawn a hailstorm of criticism from food growers and producers alike, who are worried about their products being mercilessly pilloried.
Shortly after its launch on Wednesday, the Web portal crashed after more than 20,000 requests overwhelmed its server. The operator of the site, Germany's main consumer advocacy group, Verbraucherzentrale, doesn't rule out foul play in the form of a targeted denial of service attack.
Improving food safety
Although the site is now operating, its response rate is noticeably slow, due to heavy traffic.
With the new service, German Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner aims to improve food safety in Germany. She hopes to curb food scandals in which cheese on pizzas is made not from milk but soya beans, or in which snippets of meat are glued together and passed off as ham.
Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner wants consumers to keep the food industry honest
Because food control authorities can't be everywhere at once, she believes consumers should have the opportunity to help themselves, for instance by reporting suspicious foodstuffs to the new portal.
"In German supermarkets, you find more than 200,000 different food products, and about 10,000 new products are being developed every year," Aigner told reporters. "There's always a grey area, unregulated by existing laws. This is where the new Internet portal is supposed to play a role because it can highlight problems more quickly and speed up work on new regulations."
The team of experts running the site record incoming complaints, check to see whether they are plausible and, if necessary, contact the responsible food companies to see if they are willing to change the product or label.
Better consumer information
Depending on the response, the team will then classify the product as fraudulent or as one that has been modified to conform to food safety rules.
Products that are improperly labeled can mislead consumers
"We are interested in a fair discussion," said Gerd Billen who heads the team running the Internet portal. "I hope that in future there will be better consumer information in supermarkets, and that we get evidence (so that) consumer policymakers must act to change the rules."
Billen maintains the panel of experts will ensure that food producers reported to the platform are treated fairly and that none of them will face unwarranted criticism.
The food industry, however, is worried that just the opposite could prove true. Matthias Horst, manager of the Federation of German Food and Drink Industries (BVE), views the portal as superfluous.
"If someone feels cheated, he can just as well report this to the food control authorities or take his complaint to court," he said.
The association has threatened to sue the consumer advocacy group for damages if a negative verdict on a product leads to commercial losses.
But consumer protection expert Billen said more than 10 companies had already changed the labels on their products prior to the website's launch - a sign, he added, that German consumers now have more influence over food safety standards than ever before.
Authors: Uwe Hessler, John Blau
Editor: Sam Edmonds