A new report has advocated making UK food labelling more informative to consumers. The Sustainable Development Commission’s report states that the current Little Red Tractor labelling scheme fails to incentivise farmers to significantly improve their standards. In recent years there has been a surge in the number of food labelling schemes intended to inform the public, and this latest case highlights the difficulty in getting a meaningful message across to consumers.
The Little Red Tractor labelling scheme was launched in 2000 by the National Farmers’ Union in the UK. It is intended to reassure consumers that the products they buy originate from British farms, are made according to high standards and are of excellent quality. According to a report published by the Sustainable Development Commission, however, it could be improved to truly encourage a change in agricultural practices reflecting consumers’ concerns.

Although the report found that the Little Red Tractor scheme had an effective inspection regime as well as ensuring close compliance with all regulations in place, it lamented the fact that it did not go any further. The scheme is intended to provide a minimal baseline, however Assured Food Standards, which manages the system, did not effectively encourage farmers to raise standards any further.

This is worrying for both farmers and consumers. Consumers often rely on such schemes to inform their food purchase choices. Many want food that meets high standards not only in terms of quality, but also with regards to production methods (particularly livestock and poultry welfare), environmental impact, traceability and provenance. Whereas the Little Red Tractor scheme does indeed guarantee good quality, food safety and animal welfare, it does little to address wider issues such as the excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers, countryside stewardship, or water table pollution.

The case of the Little Red Tractor highlights the problem with this kind of labelling initiative. Although most are reliable indicators, their recent proliferation, particularly caused by manufacturers and retailers launching their own schemes, threatens to dilute their impact. An excess of schemes may confuse consumers who were originally well-disposed, leading to disillusionment if some are found to be unreliable, reflecting badly on effective schemes and undermining the concept.

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