The European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production Round Table's recently published report on the communication of environmental information is a timely contribution to the debate over the extension of the EU's Ecolabel scheme to food. Ben Cooper reports.

Now is probably a good moment for the European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production Round Table (Food SCP RT) to produce a report on the communication of environmental performance.

Last month saw the publication by the European Commission of a feasibility study on the extension of the EU Ecolabel scheme to food, feed and drink. This has been opposed by FoodDrinkEurope, representative body of the European food industry and instigator of the Food SCP RT, as well as by other stakeholders.

The fact that this report, prepared by the Round Table's Environmental Information Tools working group, looks more broadly than labelling is in itself significant. Aside from industry opposition to the EU Ecolabel extension, there are those who feel that focusing too narrowly on labelling, particularly an ISO Type 1 label of which the EU Ecolabel is an example, is counter-productive.

Not only is the creation of an 'omni-label' covering all food extremely challenging, borne out by food not being included in the Ecolabel programme, the findings of the Commission's feasibility study and a study published by Defra in the UK earlier this year, but there are those who feel on-pack labelling can only be part of the solution.

The working group assessed 11 different means of communicating environmental performance, including labelling, point-of-sale material, on-shelf communication, public relations and media campaigns.

It set out to examine the methods "best placed for environmental communication to the consumer", supporting informed choices "but not placing a disproportionate burden on food chain partners, particularly SMEs". It concluded that "communicating environmental information is best done by using a multi-pronged approach".

Tania Runge, senior policy advisor at Copa-Cogeca and co-chair of the working group, believes a "very important message" was that there was "no single answer" for communicating environmental performance, adding that the report's breadth of scope was its strength.

With the industry's opposition to the Ecolabel extension in mind, its observations on on-pack labelling are clearly of particular interest.

It concluded that communicating environmental information "remains complex and often cannot be distilled to simple claims or visual icons", adding that "in most cases sharing environmental information requires appropriate space for specific, contextual information and substantiation" and owing to space constraints packaging is "less suitable" for this type of communication.

The report recommends that on-pack communication can be used for information concerning the consumption and post-consumption phase; certification schemes; ISO type II labels that are clear, accurate and substantiated; and cause-related marketing.

However, on the matter of ISO type 1 labels - and though not stated this is essentially an allusion to the proposed EU Ecolabel extension to food - there is an important footnote, stating that while the majority of members agreed with the conclusions on labelling, some were in favour of ISO type 1 labels. As several studies and initiatives are ongoing, the members pledged "to review their recommendations on ISO Type 1 labels and on environmental footprints when more information is available".

Runge explains: "The nearer the partners in the Food SCP RT are to the consumer, the more they are in favour of the Ecolabel; the farther they are away the more they are afraid about possible additional costs and bureaucracy." The advantages of such a label can be reaped at the consumer end of the supply chain through a premium price, Runge continues, "but the issue is who will get this added value along the food chain".

The Ecolabel feasibility study suggests food categories which could be brought into the scheme initially are yoghurt and cheese; bread; non-alcoholic beverages and processed fish. However, Runge points out that industry representatives in the Food SCP RT want a "harmonised methodology covering all food and drinks", with additional specific rules for certain products where necessary.

The other co-chair of the Environmental Information Tools working group is Jeroen Van Laer, policy officer at the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco), who was at pains to point out that the decision process about the extension of the Ecolabel remained at an early stage.

He said that as part of its Resource Efficiency Roadmap, launched in September, the Commission would be publishing a Sustainable Food Communication in 2013. The details and scope of this are still to be determined, but it may well be that a decision on extending the Ecolabel would be left until then. "From what I see, there will be no decision tomorrow on this," says Van Laer.

In the meantime, what the Food SCP RT has put together is "much wider" than the feasibility study, Van Laer says. "We have looked at different ways of communicating environmental performance, and the Ecolabel extension study was also part of the discussions of course, and was also one of the things on which there was not full agreement between the food chain partners."

It is not just differences of opinion between industry stakeholders that the report has to try to reflect. A key aspect of the Food SCP RT's work is that it is intended to garner input from a wide range of stakeholders.

The commitment of the Commission to the Food SCP RT, reflected in the participation of Van Laer and representatives of other DGs, has been important for its credibility, and also opens a very useful conduit between the industry and policymakers in Brussels.

Pleasingly for industry representatives, Van Laer sees this as an important resource for the Commission. "Overall I think this is a very positive project. It's interesting also for the Commission because we get an eye on the real world outside the Commission and it's also very relevant and interesting for the food chain partners to be kept updated on things on the policy process."

However, he suggests the Round Table needs to maintain efforts to ensure it reflects wider opinion than just industry. Industry has been its driving force - it has funded the project and industry members are the most active participants in its work - and while there is an intention to seek and reflect a range of opinion, some will still see this primarily as an industry initiative.

The Food SCP RT is "very open and transparent", Van Laer says "but we see that not all stakeholders, in particular the consumer NGOs and the environmental NGOs, are able to follow this very actively." He adds that it is important for the Commission and for the food chain members that "all stakeholders are included".

He continues: "I'm not saying this is not the case but that is a point that we need to certainly monitor in the future, that the input from other stakeholders will not diminish, and on the contrary, that it will further improve."

In addition, Van Laer stresses the need for the Food SCP RT "not only to deliver on analysis and reporting, as we have been currently doing, but in the future also deliver achievements on the ground."

These observations are relevant not least as the Food SCP RT's current mandate expires at the end of next year, when the Commission will evaluate its participation in the project.

For those running the Food SCP RT, this appears to be a gentle prod that they have to work harder to ensure that it lives up to its name as a 'Round Table', a forum reflecting the views of all stakeholders, and that while the Commission has supported the Round Table enthusiastically thus far, nothing is forever.