A DEFRA-commissioned report into eco labelling for food was published on Monday while the government department has recently updated its Green Claims Guidance. Ben Cooper looks at how the UK government is approaching the complex issue of eco labelling for food.

The level of consumer interest in sustainability ranges widely, from passionate commitment through agnosticism all the way to apathy and ignorance. But one issue that might unite a large proportion of these people would be misleading, inaccurate or confusing messages about environmental credentials.

Those who care about sustainability tend to be very supportive of labelling and other ways of communicating environmental criteria and enraged when there is misrepresentation. The variety and complexity of information that consumers may receive about products through different labels and green claims baffles the ignorant and further deters the apathetic.

The last week or so has provided two opportunities to examine the communication of environmental criteria of food products to consumers both originating from the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

On Monday, Defra published a report into the effectiveness of eco labelling in food products conducted by the University of Hertfordshire, the Food Ethics Council and the Policy Studies Institute. This had followed the updating of Defra’s Green Claims Guidance.

The information posted on the Defra website includes advice to companies on how they should make green claims and to consumers on what they can do if they believe a claim has been false or misleading.

Visitors to the website are told there is a range of different voluntary labels related to the environmental impact of food, often focusing on single environmental criteria, and that the viability of food eco labelling is being explored by a range of government, inter-government and industry bodies.

Food is currently not included in the EU Ecolabel programme and has been viewed as a complex and challenging area in relation to eco labelling. Indeed, the Defra report confirmed precisely that.

It concluded that at present the science was not sufficiently robust to develop “an outcome-based, environmentally broad, omni-label” for food products and that the costs of such a scheme could be “unacceptably high in relation to the potential benefits”.

The research looked at a raft of eco labelling schemes currently being used in the food industry, finding the majority to be “practice-based” rather than “outcome-based”.

It recommended a broader approach to fostering environmental sustainability in food in favour of an emphasis primarily on labelling.

“Labelling is more effective at improving best practice than eliminating worst practice, so efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of food should not focus primarily on labelling. Labelling should be part of an integrated suite of initiatives, including government regulation and industry schemes, designed to bring about the delivery of desired outcomes,” the report concluded.

Notably among its recommendations to industry and third-sector organisations, the report recommended engagement in initiatives that support consumer understanding of environmental labelling and initiatives to harmonise methods, standards, metrics and communication.

It also stated that if the primary objective is to improve environmental performance within the industry, labelling schemes “should be linked to actual environmental performance and outcome-based measurement”. Given that the majority of the systems examined were found to be practice-based this would appear to be a significant reservation.

However, Dr Tom Macmillan, director of the Food Ethics Council, believes practice-based approaches offer some advantages, such as flexibility, and should not be dismissed. “Even though practice-based approaches don’t tend to measure product-specific impacts in many cases they are backed up by considerable bodies of research into what counts as best practice,” MacMillan tells just-food.

While the researchers were specifically asked to look at the viability of an outcome-based omni-label, MacMillan believes there is merit in practice-based models which combine a number of criteria. “You could certainly introduce a much broader range of practices covering a broader range of issues and start to see consolidation in that direction,” MacMillan says.

In addition to the recommendations for industry and third-sector organisations, the report included five recommendations to government. For instance, it recommends that government work to improve environmental labelling by supporting scientific development and debate towards achieving standardised techniques for measuring and assessing environmental impacts.

It also urged the government to “play a leading role within the UK, EU and international initiatives to harmonise approaches to labelling”, and to explore with stakeholders the potential both to assist in co-ordinating efforts to pilot improved environmental labels addressing key limitations identified in the research and to finance co-ordinated research and harmonisation.

Defra appears to be taking these recommendations under advisement. Arguably the complexity of the challenge is reflected by the fact that Defra is yet to take any official position on the findings other than to publish the report, which was first submitted to the government department in September. Defra opted simply to place the report on its website rather than issue a press release or provide a ministerial statement for the communiqué issued by the Food Ethics Council.

The report has already been the subject of minor embarrassment to Defra. In October, the researchers from the University of Hertfordshire published the report’s primary conclusions before Defra had finalised its own response.

Dr Kathy Lewis of the University of Hertfordshire’s Agricultural and Environmental Research Unit said at the time: “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.”

The updated guidance contained in the Green Claims Code would suggest that Defra is making progress in the area of green claims. Some observers have described the guidance as a step in the right direction but suggested Defra could be doing more. That may be true of eco labelling also but the report testifies that the challenges inherent in developing eco labelling solutions for the food sector are numerous and complex.