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Examining the meaning of eco-labels: Is it time for mandated methodology?

February 4, 2023
Food & Drink

A myriad of so-called eco-labels are being rolled out across various F&B products, but with no gold standard or strict rules governing precisely what the logos mean and what methodology is behind them, concerns are growing that they will confuse consumers and ultimately be counterproductive.

Unlike nutrition labels, there is no common or mandated methodology for CO2e labeling. Until standardization and a mandate become a reality, more food businesses and brands are likely to launch their own versions of green or eco-labels, all claiming to help consumers better understand the carbon footprint of products.

But do they help, or do they hinder? With no unified methodology, there is a mixed bag of opinions on their current role.

Last week, FoodIngredientsFirst reported that IFOAM Organics Europe was taking legal action before the Paris Court of Justice to defend the integrity and reliability of green labeling on food products.

Recent research also uncovered consumer expectations around eco-label certifications linked to seafood consumption. The results show confusion of understanding of precisely what the eco label means.

While DSM explained to FoodIngredientsFirst this week that clear, credible eco-labeling can influence consumers to make more sustainable choices. This comes as DSM and Foundation Earth, an independent, non-profit organization issuing front-of-pack eco impact scores on food products, are allying to cooperate on eco-labeling of food and beverages, particularly animal protein products such as eggs, milk, fish and meat.

And now Oatly is the latest brand to jump on the bandwagon of eco-labels, introducing what it calls “climate footprint labels” for select Oatly products in North America, starting with the brand’s newly reformulated line of Oatgurts – a range of non-dairy yogurt alternatives.

Lack of uniformity
While Oatly claims the label demonstrates its best effort to calculate climate footprints and educate consumers on the environmental impact of products, labels like this are coming under scrutiny.

Amid this lack of a benchmark on eco labels, Nomad Foods has taken the initiative on what a cradle-to-grave approach – assessing the full emissions of a product along its life – of a company’s foods might look like.

Through a third-party report, its assessment draws on 15,000 data points and compares the company’s products to staples like fish, vegetables and plant-based foods.

Current eco-labeling needs to be improved, according to Nomad Foods. As existing approaches – cradle-to-gate – ignore emissions associated with the consumer lifecycle stages, the carbon footprint of distribution, retail and in consumer houses.

“There are a plethora of schemes already in circulation, with different methodologies, making it difficult for consumers to compare and make informed choices with the confidence that claims are robust and evidence-based,” a Nomad Foods spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

The business explains that food waste at retail and consumer levels is significant, so it must be carried out individually for every food item. This creates issues when carrying out an analysis, as foods spoil at different speeds.

But Oatly claims to be “empowering consumers to compare the climate impact of products while in the grocery aisle”, just as they do with a product’s nutritional information. Oatly believes it gives the fuller picture of a product’s impact – how it can affect a consumer’s personal health and the health of the planet.

Oatly’s product climate footprints are expressed in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of packaged food product, calculated based on a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach from grower to grocer.

CO2e considers the effect of different greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The company says the calculation, which is validated through a partnership with climate change organization CarbonCloud, aggregates the emissions into one single unit based on how much of each of those greenhouse gasses are emitted and their global warming potential over 100-years.

Governments have to step-up
The spokesperson reveals that Nomad Foods “currently doesn’t have plans to use any existing labeling schemes to communicate the carbon impact of our products to consumers.”

“However, we recognize that a more unified approach to labeling is something that the European Commission and UK government is looking at and we look forward to continuing our dialogue with retailers and key stakeholders on the topic.”

The company doesn’t recommend any scheme in particular. However, it hopes its study can help other companies to use a more comprehensive, end-to-end approach to LCA studies, which includes food loss and waste impacts, to improve transparency for consumers and drive critical action to reduce carbon emissions.

“We are now looking forward to re-engaging with industry experts on why it is vitally important to measure the whole lifecycle of food products and apply up-to-date reliable data,” says Stéfan Descheemaeker, CEO of Nomad Foods.

“Fully understanding the contribution of food waste in the product life cycle is vital to identify where we and others can continue to reduce carbon emissions,” he concludes.

By Gaynor Selby and Marc Cervera

Source: foodingredientsfirst.com

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