The fine art of judging awards

Internationally renowned food and drink expert Jane Milton, the head of the judging panel for the Scottish Retail Food & Drink Awards, discusses exactly how the exacting judging process is carried out.


‘How does the judging work?’ is probably the question I get asked most often and it’s a very fair question. After all, producers go to a lot of effort to enter awards and it’s only fair that they expect their entries to be given the time, effort and attention they deserve during the judging process.

Having judged many awards programmes over my 30+ years in this industry, I have learned the vital importance of having a completely robust and transparent judging process and I am very happy to say that the one we have in place for the Scottish Retail Food & Drink Awards is as robust as they come.

I don’t mind admitting that I have very high standards when it comes to judging and I expect those standards to be met all the way through the process. We owe that to every single product to ensure that it gets a fair chance.

Judging process

So what does judging look like for the Scottish Retail Food & Drink Awards?

Well, it all starts way in advance of the actual judging sessions themselves. Our team puts in a huge amount of time and effort to go through all of the entries we receive to ensure that the products entered are in precisely the right categories. Essentially, we’re trying to ensure that we are comparing like-for-like in every category as far as is possible. That may mean we may need to tweak categories or split them up – but the ultimate aim is to ensure that we give every single product entered the best possible chance to shine in the judging.

Judging panel

Our aim in building the extensive judging panel is to reflect the breadth of the industry itself. Every judge we have chosen is experienced and expert in their particular field. Judges this year include everything from ingredient producers, packaging designers and buyers to food photographers, chefs, bloggers and food technicians.

These are people with enormous real-world expertise across all the areas you need to get right to have a truly great product that will succeed in retail outlets in Scotland. The quality of the product itself is vital but so too are areas like packaging, pricing and sustainability.

As this is the inaugural Scottish Retail Food & Drink Awards, we will also carry out a lot of training for our judging panel illustrating how the judging will be done and highlighting the strict guidelines we must all adhere to for ensuring a consistent, robust and transparent judging process across all categories.

Organisation

The organisation of the judging for an awards programme of this scale is probably far more complex than most people imagine. Way in advance of judging, there is a huge amount of preparation and admin work required to ensure that the judging sessions themselves can go smoothly, consistently and fairly.

If you’re tasting, say, a cooking sauce, you can’t just dip your spoon into the jar and taste it. It has to be prepared precisely in line with the on-pack cooking instructions. If there are more than one set of instructions – cook an oven for an hour or microwave for 8 minutes – we will choose the option recommended by the producer because they believe that’s the best way to serve their product.

If the cooking sauces recommends including other ingredients, we’ll add those too.

When you’re potentially looking at hundreds of individual products, you can easily see how the preparation work for the judging quickly becomes a very considerable task.

Virtual judging

Ordinarily, we would judge in face-to-face groups in an appropriate commercial or professional kitchen and dining area but coronavirus means that we will be approaching the judging very differently this year, which is actually a very exciting prospect.

The fact that the judging panel will not meet face-to-face means that, rather than having each product prepared and served by the kitchen team, the judges themselves will be preparing and serving the products. This more closely replicates the real-life experience that a consumer would have when cooking the product so it will be really interesting to see how our judges get on.

They will be required to take extensive notes according to a set judging sheet format which we will provide and the panel will then meet up on Zoom to discuss every product and decide on our winners.

What will we be judging?

The judges will be tasked with considering every aspect of the product, not just how good it tastes. That covers a lot of subjects, many of them obvious, but it also includes a whole array of other important questions like: if it says it’s ‘healthier’ on the packaging, is it clear what makes it healthier? What does the ingredients list look like? Does it include palm oil? Is the packaging sustainable? Is the pricing appropriate? When you’ve prepared it, does it look like the product in the pack shot? How many portions does it provide? Did the cooking instructions work?

We will examine everything but, essentially, we are trying to see the product just as a consumer would.

How does the scoring work?

This is probably the second most popular question I get asked. The reality is that we don’t generate a final ‘score’ from set criteria. There are too many factors involved in judging a bewildering selection of food and drink products across dozens of categories and with a thousand nuances. But from long, long experience, the good products always rise to the top among the judging panels. Almost invariably we get consensus on the shortlisted products and the winners.

Feedback

This is an often overlooked but critically important element of the judging process. Every product that is entered into the Scottish Retail Food & Drink Awards will receive formal feedback from the judging panel. In my experience, most producers really appreciate this feedback because they’re effectively getting a bit of free consultancy from a panel of experts across a range of vital disciplines. And I’ve been on panels before where a product might have fallen down in one or two areas one year, only to return the following year with an improved offer and pick up an award. It’s always heartening to see producers respond positively to feedback.

Ultimately, we want to see products be successful in the market, not just in judging.

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