Defra - Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Science Search

Science and Research Projects

Return to Science Search homepage   Return to Project List

Effective approaches to environmental labelling of food products - FO0419

The environmental impacts of food production are complex and accumulate throughout a production chain from primary production, processing, packing, distribution, retail to end use (consumption). The potential environmental effects are numerous and can have a range of direct and indirect impacts, both positive and negative. The effects/impacts include greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, damage to wildlife habitats and biodiversity populations, pollution of water, soil and air and consequent degradation of the quality of these media, landscape degradation, the production of waste and its consequent disposal and the consumption of non-renewable or scarce resources. There are a number of drivers that can help reduce these impacts including legislative instruments, retail marketing and consumer choices and demand. One driver that has received attention in recent years is the use of product labels, whereby the environmental 'credentials' of a product are communicated to the consumer. This may be on a single issue, e.g. its carbon footprint or on multiple issues. In relation to the latter, the concept of omni-labelling has emerged. Omni-labels seek to convey information on a range of different environmental impacts, integrating these into a single, easy to understand format. However, the science and practice of using labels to drive changes in consumer and industry behaviour is complex. There are many issues to resolve including their scientific credibility and robustness, and consumer perception of what such labels actually mean and how they are used.

In response to the above issues and a number of policy drivers, Defra wish to explore the practicality and effectiveness of environmental labelling of food as a mechanism to promote behavioural change in order to reduce the negative environmental impacts of food production and consumption. There is also the need to compare the pros and cons of different labelling formats, including omni-labels, and to investigate the potential burden, particular costs, that introducing such a label would have on industry including food producers and exporters.

The Agriculture and Environment Research Unit (AERU) at the University of Hertfordshire propose to undertake this research for Defra in collaboration with the Food Ethics Council and the Policy Studies Institute. The approach has 3 themes of environment, consumers and industry which run through 5 tasks. These include a literature and data review, analysis of environmental impact assessment and communication and consultation with industry and consumer experts. Each task will have outputs of its own but will also feed into the development of a framework for effective and practical labelling, which will consist of a number of key criteria that will have been identified as necessary or desirable for a successful environmental labelling scheme for food products. The five tasks are outlined below:

1. A state-of-the-art review on environmental labelling, including existing schemes and how they operate will be undertaken. This will provide an evidence base to be utilised in the subsequent tasks.
2. An analysis of the key issues associated with measuring, assessing and communicating environmental impacts within the context of what is required for a scientifically credible and robust labelling scheme, and how environmental impacts can be measured, integrated and communicated.
3. A consultation exercise with industry and consumer behaviour experts including interviews, a one-day workshop and the use of a multi-criteria mapping (MCM) process. MCM allows the assessment of a number of different potential options on complex issues. It helps identify and rank stakeholder perceptions on a range of options and identify any major variables or uncertainties. This will help assess the effectiveness of labelling as a mechanism for raising awareness of environmental issues and driving behavioural change (amongst consumers and industry) and identifying the key benefits and burdens to industry of labelling schemes.
4. The development of a framework for effective and practical environmental labelling for food products. This will consolidate the findings of tasks 1 to 3 into a set of set of criteria (or objectives) that any labelling scheme for food should aim or aspire to meet, within the context of a logical and systematic framework.
5. Drawing together all the findings from the previous tasks into a final report which will also make recommendations on the feasibility of food environmental labelling in the UK.
Project Documents
• Final Report : Annex C – Consumer and industry costs, benefits and behaviour   (1482k)
• Final Report : SID5 – Final Report   (565k)
• Final Report - Annex : Annex A – Literature Review   (2829k)
• Final Report - Annex : Annex B – Analysis of environmental impacts and their integration and communication   (1269k)
• Final Report - Annex : Annex D - Development of a framework for practical and effective environmental labelling   (672k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2010

To: 2010

Cost: £68,010
Contractor / Funded Organisations
University - Hertfordshire
European Union (EU)              
Resource efficient and resilient food chain              
Sustainable Farming and Food Science              
Fields of Study
Resource Efficient and Resilient Food Chain