UK moves towards environmental food labelling

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Environment

The UK has outlined its commitment to developing environmental
labelling for food.

Speaking at the National Farmers Union Annual Conference in Birmingham, UK environment secretary David Miliband said that environmental quality is likely to become a factor in consumer decision-making alongside nutritional quality and price. "I can envisage the next step where, as well as nutritional standards, environmental standards become the norm on food packaging,"​ he told delegates. Such a move might help food makers tap the growing market for so-called 'ethical' food - Mintel​ recently forecast that UK shoppers would spend over £2 billion on ethical​ foods in 2006, up by a massive 62 per cent since 2002. But both regulators and industry must guard against consumer confusion and 'green' fatigue. "This is not an easy piece of work and will take time, particularly if this includes the whole lifecycle impact of food from production to distribution,"​ said Miliband. "I want Defra (department for the environment food and rural affairs) to work with producers, retailers, environmental organisations and existing assurance bodies on whether we can agree on a green standard, that informs and empowers consumers and gives farmers recognition in the marketplace."​ Indeed, despite the growing market for 'ethical' food and cooperation between regulators and industry, the 'ethical' food movement needs to make sure that it does not overstretch itself, or drive consumers away. For example, a recent study from Mintel​ found that despite high awareness of key environmental concerns, six out of ten (60 per cent) British adults are not fully switched on to green and ethical issues, and as many as one in five adults (20 per cent) are 'too busy to care'. A further 17 per cent are suffering from 'green overload', having become cynical about the whole movement, while a further one in four (23 per cent) are simply unsure of what they need to do to lead a more ethical way of life. It is vital for the sector therefore that consumer fatigue does not set in. The Mintel survey highlights the challenges facing those benefiting from the growing 'ethical' trend. "There have been an increasing number of media reports highlighting the complexities of environmental concerns and the difficulties that operators in the market face,"​ said Angela Hughes, consumer research manager at Mintel. "But our research shows that for many consumers too much information and mixed messages are causing them simply to 'switch off'. "Although there are no easy solutions to many of the environmental and ethical dilemmas, which face society today, most consumers clearly need to be presented with simpler messages."​ At the NFU conference, Miliband also called for the NFU, industry and government to work together to achieve a shared vision for farming's future, "as a world class industry, profitable in the marketplace, making a positive contribution to the environment and being rewarded for sensitive management of the countryside".​ UK policy on bio-energy and non-food crops will be set out in three documents published this spring - the Energy White Paper; the UK Biomass Strategy; and the government's response to the two-year progress report on the strategy for non food crops. The UK government claims to spend over £30 million a year on research and development for farming and the food chain, and an additional £40 million on animal health and welfare related research. An extra £0.5m has been earmarked next year to help farming respond to the challenge of climate change.

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