Defra labelling gets thumbs up but we must avoid 'swallowing labelling pill'

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

Defra launches consultation for food labelling on food production and origin. Gettty/97
Defra launches consultation for food labelling on food production and origin. Gettty/97

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The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs has launched a consultation around new labelling proposals which will impact meat products such as pork and bacon – and while most welcome the move, the NFU warns we must be careful not to think labelling alone will safeguard UK's 'high standards'.

The news follows Defra’s call for evidence on mandatory proposals​ and will see the department looking at how it can improve country of origin labelling.

On average, consumers take just 41-81 seconds to choose their meat at the point of fixture, according to data from AHDB. The consultation will assess how and where this information is displayed and what products should be included.

For example, if imported pork is cured into bacon in the UK and features a Union Jack, how can it be made more obvious to consumers that the pig was reared abroad.

The hope is that a new, more obvious way of presenting information will mean consumers can more easily interpret what it means and make the call to back British.

What are Defra proposals for food labelling?

The consultation will also explore new proposals around ‘method of production’ labelling on pork, chicken and eggs. This includes a mandatory five-tier label for both domestic and imported products, which would differentiate between those that fall below, meet and exceed baseline UK animal welfare regulations.

Commenting on the announcement, Fidelity Weston, chair of the Consortium of Labelling for the Environment, Animal Welfare and Regenerative Farming (CLEAR), said the UK’s high farming standards must be “recognised in the marketplace”.

“To achieve this, we need a clear definition of the many terms used to describe the method of production, and transparency and honest data about how the food was produced on the farm, and right through to the end product,”​ Weston added.

“Creating fairer labels that back British farmers is vital for the UK economy,” ​she continued. “British farmers already produce about 60% of the food we eat, with the UK agri-food and seafood sectors creating more than £120bn of value for the economy every year, and employing more than 4m people.”

Pushing truly local produce

Others to welcome the news included the Conservative Animal Welfare, and Compassion in World Farming, who both described the proposals as a critical move.

James Bailey, Waitrose’s executive director, was also quick to praise the news.“We have a long history of championing British farmers and are the no1 supermarket for animal welfare standards,” ​he wrote on a post on Linked In.

“We welcome the plans announced yesterday [12 March 2024] to improve transparency about methods of production used on farms producing the nation’s food.

“It is a move we’ve been calling for at Waitrose. If we're going to change the food system for the better it has to start with transparency. We want all shoppers to have the information they need to make GOOD choices and support the highest standards of British farming.”

The consultation comes after the recent announcement at the NFU conference by UK PM Rishi Sunak​ of ‘the largest ever’ round of farming grants, alongside news that the Farm to Fork Summit will become a yearly event.

“This government backs British farmers, who work hard to produce food to world-leading standards and maintain our nation’s food security. British consumers want to buy their produce, but too often products made to lower standards abroad aren’t clearly labelled to tell them apart,”​ environment secretary, Steve Barclay, who is spearheading the consultation, stated.  

“That is why I want to make labelling showing where and how food is produced fairer and easier to understand – empowering consumers to make informed choices and rewarding our British farmers for producing high-quality, high-welfare food.”

Labelling alone won't help British farmers

However, while NFU deputy president David Exwood, agreed food labels must be clear, simple and accurate, he believes the ultimate answer will be multifaceted.

“Labelling on its own is not the answer to safeguarding our own high standards from imports that are produced under conditions that would be illegal in the UK,”​ he warned. “That is why one of our asks in our election manifesto calls on the next government to enshrine a set of core environmental and animal welfare standards in law for all agri-food imports.”

NFU is backing existing technology such as QR codes to be utilised for any mandatory changes to labelling that will provide consumers with information on product environmental metrics and animal welfare.

The union has also issued previous warnings over ‘the labelling pill’, with NFU food business advisor, Helen Hunt, cautioning the risk of easily skewed data.

For example, looking at environmental scores in isolation may see products with no or very low nutritional value come out on top – yielding some questionable results.

“Policymakers should be wary of swallowing the ‘labelling pill’ as the remedy to meeting public health, environment and societal challenges,” ​Hunt wrote in a post from October 2022.

The consultation will run for eight weeks, closing just before midnight on 7 May 2024. Have your say at the Defra labelling consultation here.

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