Knowledge for better food systems

Defra findings on the effectiveness of food labelling to promote behaviour change

Defra has just published the findings of research, undertaken by the Agriculture and Environment Research Unit (AERU) at the University of Hertfordshire, in collaboration with the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) and the Food Ethics Council (FEC), titled Effective approaches to environmental labelling of food products - FO0419.  
Defra has just published the findings of research, undertaken by the Agriculture and Environment Research Unit (AERU) at the University of Hertfordshire, in collaboration with the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) and the Food Ethics Council (FEC), titled Effective approaches to environmental labelling of food products - FO0419.   The aim of the research was to investigate practicality and effectiveness of environmental labelling of food as a mechanism to promote behavioural change so as to reduce the negative environmental impacts of food production and consumption. It also sought to compare the pros and cons of different labelling formats, including omni-labels, and to assess the potential burden, particularly costs, that introducing such a label would have on industry including food producers and exporters.   In more detail the goals were to:
  • Provide a current view on the use of environmental labels on food (and other) products based on a review of existing literature on industry impacts, effects on consumers and the scientific basis of environmental labelling.
  • Identify the key issues and challenges associated with assessing, integrating and communicating environmental impacts within the context of what is required for a scientifically credible and robust labelling scheme.
  • Identify the effectiveness, benefits and burdens of labelling as a mechanism for raising awareness of environmental issues and driving behavioural change , through 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.
  • Identify guidelines for a credible and robust label that is effective and practical for consumers.
  •   The project’s conclusions are as follows:   Our principal conclusion from the work that has been undertaken in this project is that we do not believe that the science is sufficiently robust to develop an outcome-based, environmentally broad, omni-label at this time. Additionally, the costs that such a scheme may incur could be unacceptably high in relation to the potential benefits that could be realised, particularly since there is lack of evidence on how effective labels are as a tool to stimulate change. There will continue to be a role for environmental labelling alongside other initiatives to improve the sustainability of food production and consumption. For example, within industry, food chain information, including environmental impact data, can be valuable to help manage issues and identify areas for improvement, and for consumers, labelling can educate and empower them to make informed choices through provision of information in relation to food. However, efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of food should not focus primarily on labelling as this is unlikely to deliver desired outcomes on its own. Labelling should be part of an integrated suite of initiatives, including government regulation and industry schemes, designed to bring about the delivery of desired outcomes. There are a number of existing initiatives with respect to labelling both within industry and more internationally, such as within the EU. Therefore, the main role for government in relation to environmental labelling should be to harmonise and improve existing schemes rather than develop a new outcome-based omni-label. On this basis, we have formulated a number of recommendations for potential ways forward. These have been split between those that apply to businesses and third sector organisations involved in labelling and those that apply to government, though a number would in practice involve these sectors working together.   The report is entitled Effective approaches to environmental labelling of food products - FO0419 and can be viewed here,
 

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