It was always a little like being told the punchline having missed the preceding story...
Front of Pack (FOP) food labelling was not originally designed to draw consumers into exploration of ingredient sourcing, manufacturing processes or the nature of the labour involved. This is because its primary goal was as a visual shove towards healthier food purchases.
This, in turn, was to support the World Health Organisation's calls for countries to adopt regulatory measures and public health initiatives to reduce the incidence of obesity and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) associated with unhealthy diets. Almost all instances where nutritional FOP labelling has been adopted have demonstrated positive outcomes in raising consumer awareness of the health implications of their purchases. Additionally, research shows that the inclusion of key nutrient information in an FOP summary has driven food manufacturers to develop healthier alternatives to standard products - it is a form of advertising after all (see Passles passim for my own take on this!).
Wins all round then, which makes judging the usefulness of an equivalent FOP label showcasing 'sustainable' or 'Green' credentials a no-brainer, surely? Well, er, no... As ever, it is not as simple as it may seem...
Professor Matthias Finkbeiner is the Chair of Sustainable Engineering (a thing which you didn't know existed but then you think, 'why wouldn't it?', and are glad that it does) at Technical University in Berlin. In this Food Navigator article, Professor Finkbeiner outlines the difficulties in trying to harmonise ecological and sustainability standards sufficiently to apply FOP eco-labelling fairly and equally.
Since we need any FOP initiative to do two things (provide accurate information to the consumer, and change their purchasing behaviour in a way that benefits the environment), the question becomes, what criteria do we base any advisory eco-label on? Whether the source ingredients are 'sustainably' acquired? Local production vs air miles? Regenerative initiatives? Ethical use of land? There are already a myriad of standards linked to ethical and sustainable food production - from MSC to Global GAP and RSPO, and from GRI standards to Intertek's own Total Sustainability Assurance, which genuinely covers end-to-end business functions.
Who decides what is labelled 'Green' and what is consigned to (presumably) 'Red' label guilt tripping? One of Professor Finkbeiner's concerns is the possibility of proliferation of standards, leading to the type of general confusion that the global variances in nutritional FOP encourages. For this he offers as a solution mandatory labelling, while acknowledging that they may not be 'better' per se.
So there are a lot of questions to be answered before we might be able to look forward to global harmonisation of FOP eco-labels, and, as we have seen recently with ISO23662 and the contentious definition of vegan / vegetarian, simply having a standard does not guarantee universal acceptance.
Of course, none of this means that we should not try, or that the world will not be improved should we succeed...
The European Commission is planning to propose a sustainable food labelling network, yet must first address several key challenges, suggests Professor Matthias Finkbeiner, Chair of Sustainable Engineering at Technical University Berlin