Consumer Watchdog Sets a German Gold Standard

Associated Press Writer

When Germany’s consumer watchdog flunked the country’s honey makers, the report got producers and tea drinkers buzzing.

Sticky business over food and other products is routine for Stiftung Warentest, a nonprofit group that delights Germany’s finicky and bargain-hungry shoppers with report-card grades on everything from apple juice to digital cameras.

With standards that can go far beyond the legal requirements, the foundation often annoys German businesses, which sue it regularly. But its pickiness has won influence among consumers, and manufacturers whose products win top ratings are quick to promote the results.


A study once found that Germans trust the Berlin-based group more than they do priests, pastors or politicians.

The foundation’s white-coated testers spend their days scientifically scrutinizing toast and picking apart chicken nuggets, then trumpet the results to half a million readers of its glossy monthly Test magazine.

The verdicts: All the toast brands passed, but in the chicken nugget contest, cheaper supermarket brands edged fast-food chains. Other recent targets included anti-wrinkle creams (they don’t work), olive oil (labels often mislead about olive origins) and pharmacists (many bungled a list of drug questions).

Stiftung Warentest’s power to sway buying habits has earned it a rebuke from consumer products firm Henkel for slighting its brand-name detergent in comparison with store brands, and German actress Uschi Glas complained in a national newspaper that a bad review had halved sales of her cosmetics line.

“You have to tell the producers, ‘You can’t intimidate us,’ ” foundation director Werner Brinkmann said in an interview in Stiftung Warentest’s gray marble headquarters in Berlin.

“That’s very important. If you always give in, they will just keep coming,” Brinkmann said. “You have to say, friends, we aren’t going along with that, go ahead and file a lawsuit -- and we win most of them.”


That attitude has won the group a deep public trust. A 2000 poll by the Forsa research group gave Stiftung Warentest a 1.9 rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 the highest. Public television got 2.8, Germany’s Protestant and Roman Catholic churches 3.3 and parliament 3.6.

Founded by the German government in 1964 to better inform consumers faced with an increasing variety of products during West Germany’s postwar economic boom, the group gets about $7.8 million in annual subsidies for its $59-million budget. The foundation generates the rest of its revenue from the magazine and book publishing.

It’s part of Germany’s emphasis on government involvement in making free markets work, said Usula Hansen, professor of marketing at the University of Hanover.

“The state says protection of consumers is an important government task, so that consumers can play their role as critical market participants,” she said.

Much of the controversy Warentest provokes comes from its fussy standards, as shown by the honey expose. The group gave its stinging “mangelhaft,” or “poor,” rating to 18 of 34 honey brands rated in its April issue.

Food scientists from an outside lab hired secretly for the test found a suspicious substance used as a sealant in some of the lids and traces of antibiotics in supposedly organic honeys -- serious news in a country where organic products are in vogue.


They also fingered supposedly pedigreed honeys that turned out to be cheap blends.

The findings made the national television news. They also drew a lawsuit from an outraged honey producer seeking to get the bad rating withdrawn -- Warentest won, although the decision is being appealed.

The company’s product was flunked for calling itself acacia honey. Stiftung Warentest said pollen analysis showed the bees had been buzzing around mimosa blossoms.

The maker of the honey in question, Munich-based Breitsamer, made a point-by-point rebuttal on its website, accusing the foundation of “downright hair-raising sloppiness or a conscious misinterpretation in order to damage a very successful product.”

Company head Robert Breitsamer said that pollen was only one indicator and that his honey’s sugar and enzyme characteristics indicated acacia.

The case illustrates a frequent criticism of Warentest: It uses standards that are higher than those set by consumer law. For instance, the substance in the lids, semicarbazide, wasn’t found in the honey, and studies are hazy on whether it’s even a health hazard.

“When they go beyond what the law requires, it can be difficult for the producers,” said Katrin Langner, managing director of the German Honey Assn.


Warentest’s latest clash is with Gebrueder Stolle, whose chicken nugget was declared “formed meat” by Warentest.

Two judges, however, have sided with Stolle’s effort to have the rating withdrawn, ruling that the finding was wrong.

Warentest is appealing. “We have every confidence of winning,” Brinkmann said.