FSA chief scientist says eco-labels are ‘golden opportunity’ for industry

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

FSA chief scientist says eco-labels are ‘golden opportunity’ for industry

Related tags Carbon label carbon labeling eco-labels Food standards agency Fsa

The UK Food Standards Agency Chief Scientist Robin May says urgent progress is needed on a unified eco-labelling system so that the food system can be set on a path to sustainability.

FSA consumer surveys have suggested nearly three-quarters of those polled (73%) think it is important for them to buy food that has a low environmental impact, but just 49% considered their personal diet to be environmentally sustainable. 

The cost of sustainable foods​ was the most commonly reported barrier (29%), whilst 16% reported that a lack of understanding about what is/isn’t sustainable was a barrier to a more sustainable diet. 

May complained there are no internationally agreed standards for environmental sustainability labelling and no agreement on what ‘sustainable production’ should measure, such as carbon dioxide release, water use or biodiversity impact? Consequently, he said “there is no easy way for consumers to make evidence-based purchasing decisions about the environmental impact of their diet”.

Many in the industry believe that, at best, labels displaying a product’s environmental impact could be an important piece of the puzzle as the food and drink sector attempts to cut its environmental impact. At worse, they are viewed as a marketing gimmick that could lead to greenwashing that will only be read by those consumers who are already climate conscious.

'Eco-labelling could drive rapid improvements in food sustainability'

May however suggested eco labelling can truly help the food sector win consumer trust. “Transforming the food system into one that is fully sustainable relies on a central premise – that the environmental footprint of foods is known.” Eco-labelling of foods, he explained, “would enable consumers to compare the environmental footprint of different foods and vote with their wallets. More importantly, eco-labelling would be a powerful driver of change in the food industry. Experience has already shown that mandatory nutritional labelling has helped incentivise companies to reformulate foods, bringing health benefits that go far beyond individual changes in consumer purchasing. Eco-labelling could achieve the same for environmental credentials and drive rapid improvements in food sustainability.”

But there are too many labels, some fear. There are now currently almost 460 eco labels globally, with over 120 different types in use on food and drink products. And without a single score and methodology, consumers may struggle to understand genuinely environmentally friendly products.

May claimed that with many large food businesses already developing their own ‘in-house’ sustainability labelling schemes, there is an even greater need for consistency to reduce the risk of misinformation and consumer confusion.

“To set the food system on a path to sustainability, we need to urgently tackle this information vacuum,”​ he said. “Doing so will require an unprecedented level of collaboration between business, academia and government, but comparable climate-driven collaborations are already underway in sectors such as transport and energy, and there is no reason that food should be different.”

Consistency framework needed

He added that labelling must also be consistent across the sector.

Such labelling must also be consistent across the sector, he said. “Comparing ‘three green stars out of five’ at Retailer X with ‘140 carbon miles’ at Retailer Y will spread confusion and risks jeopardising the entire concept. Developing a single system will require close coordination between businesses, an enhanced assurance capability for regulators and expert input from behavioural science to be sure that the end product is clearly and accurately understood by consumers. There is a golden opportunity now for businesses to work together with each other and the public sector in order to ‘get on the front foot’ – creating a coherent voluntary scheme that can be easily morphed into a mandatory one in due course.”

In some cases, new research is going to be needed, he suggested. “We have accurate data already on the carbon footprint of a UK dairy cow or a Danish pig, but far less about small-scale coffee plantations or organic tree nut harvesting, for instance. This is particularly true of new and emerging sustainable food types; comparing the sustainability credentials of Californian almond ‘milk’ with Devon dairy milk, or a lab-grown burger with a traditional beef burger, can only be done if both food types have a comprehensive data set attached to them.

He added: “Climate change is a global problem and needs global solutions. The UK is a recognised leader in food standards and has correspondingly high levels of consumer trust in the food system. This gives us the opportunity to lead the way in making food more sustainable too, but we must act now if we are to do so. None of the problems in the food system are insurmountable, but time is not on our side.”

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