Man in a supermarket

Eco-labelling is urgent, argues FSA Chief Scientist

FSA calls for universal eco-labelling on foods in order to help tackle climate change
22 December 2021 , Steve Smethurst

The FSA is urging the introduction of an eco-labelling system to enable consumers to compare the environmental footprint of food, as a survey reveals that over half of respondents desire a more sustainable diet.

Sir Robin May, Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has called for urgent progress on a unified eco-labelling system for food in the UK. It comes as more than half (54%) of respondents to an FSA survey say they would like to improve their diet to make it more sustainable. The Healthy and Sustainable Diets consumer survey also revealed that 73% believe it’s important for them to buy food that has a low environmental impact.

Sir Robin explained that the way we grow, process and transport food is a major contributor to climate change, with food production as a whole accounting for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. “Reducing this will require dramatic changes in agriculture, manufacturing and transport,” he said. “The food we buy is driven by a complex interplay between consumer demand, retail marketing and farm production.”

“Mandatory nutritional labelling has helped incentivise companies to reformulate foods, bringing health benefits that go far beyond individual changes in consumer purchasing. Eco-labelling could achieve the same for environmental credentials.”

However, he argued that the ‘eco-labelling’ of foods would enable consumers to compare the environmental footprint of different foods and vote with their wallets. “More importantly, eco-labelling would be a powerful driver of change in the food industry. Experience has already shown that mandatory nutritional labelling has helped incentivise companies to reformulate foods, bringing health benefits that go far beyond individual changes in consumer purchasing. Eco-labelling could achieve the same for environmental credentials and drive rapid improvements in food sustainability.”

Some progress towards this goal has already been made with a pilot traffic-light system on food and drinks packaging launched earlier this year, allowing consumers to make more environmentally friendly choices. It has been put together by the non-profit Foundation Earth, which is backed by the government and brands including Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Lidl, CoOp, Starbucks and Danone.

The labelling pilot assesses a food’s environmental impact through four key criteria: water usage, water pollution, biodiversity and carbon. “In the simplest terms,” said a Foundation Earth spokesperson, “we gather information about the product, conduct a ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ to put numbers to the impacts and finally award the score you see on our front of pack labels. Foundation Earth is also talking to other environmental labels with the dream of one clear and credible environmental impact score that will be the same throughout the UK and Europe.”

Kate Thompson, CIEH Director said, “We would welcome an initiative that empowers consumers to make informed, sustainable food choices, and we are aware that across the EU support is building for a single, harmonised environmental food label. We trade in a global environment and the risk is that there will be a proliferation of different labelling schemes emerging with the potential to confuse consumers.”

Sir Robin warned that a single labelling system wouldn’t be easy. “To set the food system on a path to sustainability will require an unprecedented level of collaboration between business, academia and government, but comparable climate-driven collaborations are already underway in sectors such as transport and energy, and there is no reason that food should be different.”

An image of a virus

Directory of Student Training Opportunities

We're supporting environmental health students on the pathway to professional registration and providing employers with quality industry talent.

Find out more
Top