A group of food manufacturers and retailers have signed up for a new project, Foundation Earth, which will see front-of-pack labels put on products to give an indication of environmental impact.

The initiative was the brainchild of the late UK food entrepreneur Denis Lynn, who set up UK meat group Finnebrogue Artisan. He died in a quadbike accident last month.

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Through a pilot launch this autumn, non-profit organisation Foundation Earth will issue front-of-pack eco-scores on food and drink products. The labels will rate a product’s environmental credentials using a traffic-light scoring system devised by the consultancy Mondra.

The system behind the labels looks at farming, processing, packaging and transport. It assesses the environmental impact of a product based upon carbon (49% weighted), water usage (17%), water pollution (17%) and biodiversity loss (17%).

In parallel to the pilot will be a nine-month research and development programme, funded by Nestlé, that will combine the Mondra method with a system devised by an EU-funded consortium of Belgium’s Leuven University and Spanish research agency AZTI.

The consortium is brought together under the auspices of the European Commission’s food innovation initiative EIT Food. The aim of the programme is to prepare Foundation Earth for a Europe-wide roll-out in 2022.

“The Mondra and EIT systems are unique globally, in that they both allow two products of the same type to be compared on their individual merits via a complete product life cycle analysis, as opposed to simply using secondary data to estimate the environmental impact of an entire product group,” Jago Pearson, chief strategy officer at Finnebrogue, told Just Food.

Under the system, generic chicken nuggets would get a B label and blueberries a C, but the scores for individual products will vary depending on production methods.

Northern Ireland-based Finnebrogue is among the food manufacturers and retailers set to take part in the pilot launch. Participants also include private-label supplier Greencore, meat-free business The Meatless Farm and UK retailer Marks and Spencer.

Two other UK food retailers, Sainsbury’s and The Co-op, as well as Spanish grocer Eroski, are also supporting the initiative. Along with M&S, Nestle and Tyson, they will sit on Foundation Earth’s industry advisory group to discuss how the labels could be rolled out across the industry. None of these companies are taking part in the pilot launch.

Asked why Nestlé was participating in the pilot, Johannes Weber, the company’s European affairs manager, said: “Nestlé is excited about the possibility to partner with Foundation Earth on a research program to look into these environmental footprint approaches. The ultimate goal of this study is to test labelling our products. Since the cooperation has just started, today we cannot confirm when the first Nestlé products will be on-shelf. We will do a pilot as soon as possible.”

He added: “This pan-European scientific project will help us to further develop the concept of communicating the environmental impact of our food and beverage products. Foundation Earth will provide us with the opportunity to test environmental footprint methods, learn how different products perform and establish how consumers respond. We hope this could help inform discussions in Europe with regards to a universal system for environmental scores.”

The scheme is supported by the UK government. George Eustice, the country’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, said: “Foundation Earth’s ambition to develop eco-labelling on food has the potential to help address the urgent challenges of sustainability and climate change.”

Andy Zynga, chief executive of EIT Food, added: “The launch of Foundation Earth is a very significant moment for the European food industry. It is the culmination of years of work from our EIT Food consortium and from the likes of Oxford University. It will bring about a credible and clear front-of-pack environmental labelling system on food products right across the continent.”

Professor Chris Elliott, chair of the Foundation’s scientific advisory committee, said: “The development of a more transparent, sustainable global food supply system is of huge importance to the health of our planet and health of all citizens. We need a system based on the core principles of integrity.”