The UK government must transform food labelling to reflect the full method of production, so consumers understand how their food is farmed, grown, reared, and processed. A 40-strong consortium says the current trade, tech and policy environment has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the food and farming system through better informed consumer decisions.
The Consortium for Labelling for the Environment, Animal Welfare and Regenerative Farming (CLEAR), launched at Groundswell in June, includes Sustain, the Food Ethics Council, The Sustainable Soils Alliance, Soil Association, RSPB, and Food, Farming & Countryside Commission.
Spokesperson Fidelity Weston also chairs the Pasture for Life Association (PFLA), a farmer led membership organisation that supports farmers to transition to more environmentally friendly farming practices.
- Why should the government act now to reform food labelling?
- The infrastructure is already in place to gather data isn’t it?
- What’s wrong with current pilots and labelling schemes?
She told Quota, “We’re attracting really mainstream support and I think that’s because a lot of farmers and consumers didn’t want the trade deal with Australia. The Australia deal has really raised the stakes so the only way to protect our farmers is through mandatory and transparent labelling.
“One million people signed the Save Our Farming Standards in the UK petition, led by the National Farmers Union (NFU), showing that people are really concerned about the standards of their food.
“Everybody should have access to information about the impact of their choices”
“Access to food provenance should not be limited to expensive products – to food with an organic label – or to food that’s bought direct from a farm, like mine. It should be available to everyone, wherever they shop.
“Everybody shopping in a supermarket should have access to the same information about the impact of their choices on the environment and on their own health.
“It’s not a party political issue, it’s a citizenship issue. To think that we buy things that impact other people’s livelihoods, the environment, animal welfare, our own health – and yet we’ve no means of knowing how, for good or worse.
“If you have a labelling system that helps people make better decisions about healthy options, you could be saving money in the NHS and generally driving a really good food culture in the UK.”
The consortium recognises this is a complex area and the best expertise and experience should be brought to bear. This could possibly be done by the government establishing a Commission to oversee the development and delivery of the new labelling standards.
“Grass-fed, outdoor bred, free range, local, seasonal don’t mean anything at the moment”
“One of the first tasks is to properly define some of the terms marketers are using. This was a recommendation in 2009 by Natural England responding to aFood Standards Agency consultation,” says Fidelity Weston.
“We need to review the terms grass-fed, outdoor bred, free range, local, seasonal. None of these actually mean anything at the moment.
“You can put the term grass fed on your product if it’s just 51 per cent grass fed. The other 49 per cent could be anything at all which is totally misleading to the consumer.
“As a farmer who’s producing genuine 100 per cent grass fed meat it’s very hard to distinguish ourselves in the marketplace.
“The PFLA did a survey in 2018 of consumers and we said to them do you think it’s fair that this is the current definition of grass fed and 98 per cent of them said no way and the law needs to be changed.”
The consortium says mandatory labelling will help deliver against the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan to “become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”
“This has to be ground up, based on real data from the farms”
Fidelity Weston says, “The very first thing about this is it has to be mandatory. Everyone on every budget has the right to this information. So, whoever you are, wherever you are, wherever you do your shopping, you should be able to see on this packet a score which will give you an idea of how good that product is for the environment, animal welfare, and your own health.
“We can’t have a system where people decide not to label because their farming or processing system is so poor, they’d rather people didn’t know about it.
“Every one of us farmers is already having to collect data now on how we farm. This will inevitably increase. It should be easy to just put that through a central data collection system in order to come up with a score.
“The second point is this has to be ground up, based on real data from the farms, and then the processors, as it moves through the system. Presumptions should not be made about what is happening on the ground from above as each farm varies so much in what it is achieving for the benefit of the environment, animal welfare etc.
“For instance, you can have a beef farm that is rearing their animals outside all their lives, their carbon footprint is extremely good because they’re sequestering carbon into the ground the way they’re grazing.
“And then the next door farm could be taking their herd indoors a lot, feeding them a lot of cereal. The carbon footprint from those two farms could be entirely different.
“So it’s not incentivising farmers to make an improvement nor recognising that are carrying out good practises at farm level, if all beef farms are counted the same.
“The consumer does want to support good farming, they do care about the climate”
“The consumer does want to support good farming practices, they do care about the climate. So, you need to go right down to that level.
“New label metrics need to accommodate fresh research, new farming policies and should definitely tie in with ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme, that provides financial rewards for delivering environmental benefits), incentives.
“As we get better at working out how we’re going to mitigate climate change and understand more about how carbon really is sequestered in our soils, that should all be perfectly easy to just adapt into these metrics, as that information and data is updated all the time. And that gives the farmer the ability always to improve and change.
“Also, country of original labelling is very misleading, that needs to be cleared up. If you buy a meat pie nobody needs to tell you where that meat has come from. We’re asking people to send us through their examples of what they think is unclear and unfair over country-of-origin labelling.
“We do have to work together to design the best system. We need to keep an eye on those overarching principles because if it’s not mandatory and not from the ground up we’re just going to have a proliferation of yet more voluntary labels which is just going to be more confusing. We have to somehow cut through all that.
“This one label will be as accurate as possible about how the food was produced”
“People will still label underneath that. So, in addition to your score, you might also want to highlight the fact that you are a member of the Soil Association.
“But this one label will be as accurate as possible about how the food was produced.
“What’s amazing about this consortium is the range of organisations that are coming on board. The Sustainable Restaurant Association are on board. Their members want to know the provenance of their food. And when you’re ordering in a restaurant you often have no idea where the product comes from, there is no law requiring it.
“We’ve had lots of civil society organisations such as Compassion in World Farming support this, they’re obviously very keen to find a good labelling system to reflect animal welfare outcomes. We’ve got environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth.
“One of the things that I think has come out of Covid [and the initial scarcity on supermarket shelves] is this business about food culture. People have gone out of their way to buy better produced food, they’ve tried to buy it locally, and tried to buy from sources that they understand a bit better. It shows that people really care.”
New labelling should coincide with government incentives supporting farmers transitioning into regenerative farming practices, she says.
“Government could be more ambitious, moving a lot faster”
“We are a growing group but making the change is hard. Farming’s a precarious business. Trying out new things runs a risk. There are loads of things the government can do to help farmers make the change. That is what we would hope the new Agricultural policy would achieve but we are not there yet.
“Some people might need to change their whole herd of cows. They might need to change machinery. They definitely need to change the way they think about things and approach decisions. It’s a big deal.
“Take grass grazing for instance, we’ve all been brought up to have all of our animals in one field for as long as we can and nibble it down until it’s very short.
“This new system is to take your animals out after as short a time as possible, let the grass grow long and let photosynthesis really go to work on the grass and build the roots and nutrition. To me now, this is so obvious I don’t know why I wasn’t doing it years ago. But it took a very long time to get there.
“The government has got to help farmers to change the way they farm fundamentally, not just tinkering at the edges. An excellent labelling system will help connect farmers to the market place and offer opportunities for better production to be supported by consumers.
“Whilst I recognise it is like turning around a huge tanker in getting to a better place for food and farming, the government could be more ambitious, and be moving a lot faster and doing a lot better.”