Environmental food labelling not currently effective

A new study calls for robust science for environmental labelling of food if consumers are to understand the environmental impact of the food stuffs they are buying and to make choices based on that knowledge.

The report, Effective Approaches to Environmental Labelling of Food Products, was commissioned by the Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and produced by the University of Hertfordshire. It says that environmental food labelling needs to be based on tough scientific principals if it is to be effective.

Food production has a vast impact on the environment ranging from the production of greenhouse gas emissions, damage to wildlife habitats, pollution of water, soil and air, production of waste and the consumption of non-renewable or scarce resources.

In response to these issues DEFRA commissioned the study to explore the practicality and effectiveness of environmental labelling of food as a way to promote behavioural change in order to reduce the negative environmental impacts of food production and consumption.

In the report, the pros and cons of different existing schemes for environmental labelling of food on industry, consumers and the environment were compared.

It found that labelling was not effective alone if not backed up with other policy options such as regulation.

The report says that existing consumer ‘eco-labels’ need more development in order to give customers a thorough explanation of a product’s environmental and social impact. They also found that at the moment the majority of these labels do not directly infer that any environmental benefits have been achieved.

One of the authors of the report, Dr Kathy Lewis said: “The majority of food ‘eco-labels’ that are currently in use are based on the promotion of best-practice and do not measure emissions or impacts in any way, mainly due to cost and the scientific practicality.

“A true ‘omni-label’ would give detailed information about highly scientific topics such as air emissions, water quality and biodiversity; we need to find a standard, simpler way of communicating this to the consumer.

“We have made these recommendations to DEFRA and we expect these findings will be used to inform Government policy.”

A survey earlier this year conducted by consumer group, Which, found consumers were overwhelmed and confused by the many different labels in use. Shoppers said they would pay more attention to the environmental impact if the labels were clearer and more meaningful.

Alison Brown

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