Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


‘Omni-label’ for food is pie in the sky – for now

March 2011

There is no point trying to develop a single eco label for food products at the moment because scientific knowledge is not up to it, the Food Ethics Council has concluded.

The council, a UK-based charity that provides independent advice on the ethics of food and farming, says that while the growing number of different eco-labels for food is creating confusion among consumers, current science is ‘not robust enough’ to provide a single ‘omni-label’ that covers all the main environmental issues.

In a new report produced with the UK government, the University of Hertfordshire, and the Policy Studies Institute think tank, it says that although measuring environmental impacts is crucial to helping businesses become greener, ‘there are big technical challenges’ to doing so.

It concludes that the government should therefore work with industry and green groups to help improve the science and agree common metrics.

But it also argues that the creation of a single eco label, however desirable, would not necessarily have the dramatic effect that some might be expecting.

Its review of 70 existing labelling schemes found that they are more effective at improving best practice in the food sector than eliminating worst practice. This means that while they serve a valuable purpose, ‘efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of food should not focus primarily on labelling’.

The review – the largest of environmental labelling on food products so far undertaken – says most environmental labels tell consumers how their food was produced, but don’t measure the direct environmental impact of individual products.

However, it concludes that these ‘practice-based’ labels still play a valuable role in engaging shoppers on social and  environmental issues, and are likely to remain more cost effective than developing an ‘outcome-based’ omni-label.
Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, said the report should act as ‘a wake-up call to anyone who thinks labelling alone will save the planet, as many of the technical and practical challenges we found won’t go away soon’.

He added: ‘It’s a fact of life that simplifying different environmental impacts clearly in one label is tricky, and shoppers will always have plenty else on their mind when they’re buying food.’

The Brighton-based Food Ethics Council largely draws on the knowledge of 14 voluntary council members who are experts in the fields of food and ethics – including David Croft, director of sustainable agriculture at Kraft Foods, David Main, senior lecturer in animal welfare at the University of Bristol, and  Elizabeth Dowler, professor of food and social policy at the University of Warwick.

It is largely funded by donations from foundations and individuals.

Food Ethics Council | UK & NI Ireland | Food Production

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