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The issue with labelling
There is a myriad of issues at play when it comes to labelling food. In October 2021, new legislation came into force, requiring food businesses and manufacturers to include a full list of ingredients on pre-packed food to better inform and protect allergy sufferers.
Dubbed ‘Natasha’s Law’, it followed the death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died following an allergic reaction after inadvertently eating undeclared sesame seeds in a Pret a Manger sandwich.
Adjusting to this new labelling law has been difficult for both producers, and retailers with on-site bakeries, restaurants or delis as it requires full ingredient lists to be provided with the 14 major allergens highlighted on food that is packaged on the same site where it is sold to customers, according to the FSA. But it is vitally important to safeguard the two million people in the UK living with a food allergy, especially as allergy-related hospital admissions are on the rise.
But allergen labelling isn’t the only thing that consumers are looking for in 2022. They want clearer labelling that informs them of the environmental and social impact of the product, as well as the story behind the brand.
As Catherine Chong, ESG expert and communications and engagement strategy lead for CLEAR, explains, “We are seeing different market forces affecting the labelling industry. Two particularly strong ones are consumers demanding more sustainable products and being more aware of greenwashing, and interest groups including investors asking for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) information and demanding food companies to communicate their plans and actions to join the net-zero greenhouse gas commitment. These forces are driving an increasing interest in environmental impact information on food labels.”
Fidelity Weston, the chair of CLEAR, added, “The confusion to the customer caused by the proliferation of voluntary labels, many of which are not audited or backed up by real-life data, causing mistrust and cynicism from many consumers. We need one common standard based on data from the farm right through the processing system to point of sale.”
Greenwashing is something Sian Sutherland, founder of A Plastic Planet has also recognised in the labelling sector. “‘Recyclable’ has to be the weasel word of the 21st century. It gets the brand off the responsibility hook – ‘but we make it from a technically recyclable material – it isn’t our problem really that the infrastructure is not there’.
“Selling something that is made from ‘recycled plastic’ is equally misleading. And then what? Back in the bin, back in the broken recycling system? When you know that less than 10% of our plastic is recycled in the UK and over 60% is exported to other countries, you realise that something made from recycled plastic is actually just another version of greenwash.”
In order to truly have ethical credentials, retailers need to be vigilant about the labelling of the products they stock and the claims they make. According to Sian, “To identify greenwashing, the question retailers need to ask themselves is, “what is the second life of this product/packaging? How is this going to be disposed of?” When products are wrapped in single-use plastic, for example, and created to be thrown immediately in the bin, they can never honestly be labelled as environmentally friendly.
“Retailers have enormous power and they need to use it to accelerate change. It is not good enough today to expect your customers to try and discern a better thing to buy. People buy what they are sold. It is the retailer and brand’s job to sell them something different. And of course, it is our government’s job to mandate that they do that fast.”
Labelling that tells the story of the food product is so important for independent retail because, according to Catherine, “Provenance is synonymous with fine food.” The prospect of a story behind a product is something that entices a customer into aligning with the brand, and could make all the difference when it comes to sales.
Catherine explained, “People are increasingly aware that place-of-origin does not tell the full story of provenance. We are seeing a great interest in information on the issues of soil health, ecosystem biodiversity, community regeneration and more are part of the fine food storytelling.
“So, there are still a lot of growth opportunities for the voluntary labelling industry. What we really need now is the government sending very strong signals to the market that there will be cross-department policies that encourage traceability, transparency, and innovation across the food supply chain.”