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Not enough science for green omni-label for food, Defra

By Jess Halliday , 08-Feb-2011
Last updated on 08-Feb-2011 at 12:38 GMT2011-02-08T12:38:37Z

There is not enough robust science to support the development of an omni-label to accurately inform consumers of the environmental impacts of food products, according to a new UK report.

The use of environmental impact labels on food products has been growing apace in recent years, with issues covered ranging from carbon emissions and water use. The development of an omni-label has been suggested as a way to cover all the environmental issues in a single label.

The new report for the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and prepared by the University of Hertfordshire, the Food Ethics Council, and the Policy Studies Institute set out to sere whether such a scheme would be possible.

The authors explored the strengths and weaknesses behind the labelling, reviewed some 70 existing labelling schemes, and considered the practicalities of labelling for consumers and business.

They concluded that there are still big technical challenges that would need to be addressed before such an omni-label could become a reality, and government should work with industry and green groups to help improve the science and agree common metrics.

The report is available online here.

What’s missing?

Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council and one of the authors, told foodNavigator.com that there are “lots of gaps” in the scientific foundation that would be required for an impact-driven omni-label scheme, such as how to take account of soil carbon, and where life cycle analysis should start and stop.

He said that there is a huge variation between outcomes projected by different systems, and use of average factors may hide a huge range. “One may end up with figures for the impact of production that are different from reality,” he said.

MacMillan said there should be standardised techniques for assessing impacts. If an technique is seen as “good enough”, there is a need to ensure everyone is using the same or similar approach – or comparison between products will be impossible.

There are also uncertainties on how to manage the end impact. “It is useful to invest in getting it right,” said MacMillan, “irrespective of whether you will stick a label on it”.

The report sets out 12 recommendations for businesses and third sectors and government to help bridge the gaps and improve environmental labelling of foods.

Building on existing labels

While these gaps exist, the emphasis should be on build on existing approaches to labelling that focus on best practice in production, rather than quantifying the impacts, MacMillan said.

“Showing you have gone through best practice is not the same as trying to measure the impacts. They are at two different ends of the spectrum”.

While the measuring end appeals to scientists, it is very difficult to achieve and for the foreseeable future will remain “incredibly complicated and expensive”.

Process-based approaches on best practice, on the other hand, have the potential to be effective in engaging consumer – although they do need to be cross-checked with the research to ensure they have a robust basis.

Tackling proliferation

There has been considerable debate about the proliferation of eco labels, and is one of the wider motivations for an omni-label, MacMillan said, as it would reduce the number of schemes in use.

The report authors looked at existing research on label use and found “there is a strong case to be made that labels can confuse shoppers. Simplification would make labels more meaningful for shoppers”.

When it comes to who should be responsible for that simplification, MacMillan said the government is in the best position to drive standardisation, since industry is motivated by competitive issues and eco labels are used to differentiate food products in the market.

However he questioned whether labels should be a priority for governments, as while labels can improve best practice they do little to lift worst practice in the food industry.

“If it’s a question of priorities, it should be to eliminate worst practice”, he said, adding that they should consider the full spectrum of policy tools government has at its disposal, including regulation and fiscal measures.

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