Food Labelling: We need to know the full story between ‘farm’ and ‘fork’.

As consumers, we place a lot of trust in our food system to deliver both quality and honest food: If we are buying a beef burger, we don’t want to find horse in it; if we are buying chips, we don’t want to find a piece of metal in our meal.

Despite these acute examples, and a resultant demand for provenance and proper labelling, I can’t help but think that there is still a tendency to align with the moto: ‘If it looks like chicken, tastes like chicken, then it is chicken’. 

In other words, we are more than happy to scream from the rooftops when our food is definitely not what we ordered, but when it comes to the chronic lack of transparency in our food system – particularly in the stages between ‘farm’ and ‘fork’ – we don’t really care. 

Farm to fork  – we are at the root of it.
Source: Pinterest Farm to Table series

Innocent smoothies?

Take Joanna Blythman’s investigative article into the health foods industry as an example.  She aims to lift the lettuce leaves from our eyes, uncovering what technical and artificial processes go into giving an illusion of ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ when it comes to our fruit salads to chicken. A label simply indicating the geographical origin, a stamp of approval from the Food Standards Agency, or nutritional information of our salad allows for these processes to remain hidden. As Joanna Blythman states:

From water-injected poultry and powdered coagulated egg, to ultra-adhesive batters and pre-mixed marinades, the raw materials in industrial food manufacturing are rarely straightforward. In fact, they commonly share quite complicated back stories of processing and intervention that their labels don’t reveal.

Our daily brew

Let us put our teabag into hot water. I recently attended a TOAST event on the science, politics and history behind our tea; a staple that we regularly consume without a second thought. For example, the average teabag contains leaves from over 36 origins, all bundled up in the same papery mesh.

Sarah Roberts, director of the Ethical Tea Partnership, spoke of how the Fairtrade label – indicating minimum wage for plantation workers – does not reflect other challenges: soil degradation and changing climates, gender inequality, poor living conditions and worker’s rights, unethical trade agreements. These are also bundled up in our everyday brew, however the only question we tend to ask is ‘how do you take yours?’. 

How much are we lovin’ it?

Another example is McDonald’s. The world’s largest fast food chain has been under a lot of pressure in recent years to improve its animal welfare, organic credentials and nutritional content. To be very honest, it’s done fantastically well – in fact, it is now on a par with retail stores such as Marks & Spencers. The use of free-range, organic and free from antibiotics meat and dairy products has led to McDonald’s winning a variety of awardsincluding the RSPCA Good Business Awards, and is founder of the European Animal Welfare Platform. Following Starbucks footsteps, McDonald’s may also be including a kale ‘supersmoothie’ into its drinks lists, encouraging healthy eating amongst fast food buyers.
However, here is the question that always plagues my mind: How can McDonald’s offer organic, free-range and ethical products at such a low cost? Surely the two are contradictory; one nourishes the planet and our bodies, and the other maintains an era of cheap, processed food.

One reason for this is pure economies of scale, but another is a relative lack of attention on worker’s rights – one of the most important connections between ‘farm’ and ‘fork’. In recent months, evidence has emerged that 33% workers have to treat burns and other injuries with condiments such as mustard, butter and ketchup due to lack of proper health and safety measures. Labour unions have also shown how McDonald’s abuses minimum wage requirements, paying staff as low as $8 an hour. A non-violent ‘Fight for $15’ protest resulted in a $1 an hour raise; an increase that many still believe is not enough.

How can we progress our food labelling system?

If we truly demand honest information on what we eat, then we need to start practicing what we preach. No more simply relying calorie information, slogans of ‘fresher for longer‘, or country of origin; we need to know the full story. 

I want to give several examples so, along with knowing the story, you can become part of it too.

The Honest Crust, Real Bread Campaign

The Real Bread Campaign is an inspirational movement subsumed within Sustain, the international campaign for better food and farming. 

In a quest to get people to support ‘real’ bread and local bakeries rather than our mass-produced industrial supermarket loaves, they propose the Honest Crust Act. Chris Young of Real Bread summarised the Act very simply: we need to bake without the use of artificial additives or processing aids, and go by the moto that ‘If your grandmother doesn’t recognise the ingredient, you shouldn’t eat it’. 

The Real Bread Campaign provides a much more detailed list of reasons why we should support the Honest Crust Act, and further information on what is hidden in our industrial loaves. It really is the best thing since sliced bread…

Petition for an ‘Impact Facts’ label, Avaaz

Avaaz, a campaign organisation based in the US, is petitioning for an ‘Impact Facts’ label. They give the example of fish and how it can be labelled as ‘locally sourced‘ even if it has been shipped off to another country to be processed, then shipped back again. They state that better labelling is not just an environmental issue, but one to help reduce global inequality within trade of our staple foods. Our labels need to answer the questions:

  • Where do ingredients come from and where were they processed?
  • How much energy and water was consumed?
  • How many times did they travel by air, sea or land?

You can sign the petition here.

True Cost Accounting, Sustainable Food Trust (SFT)

There is a clear discrepancy between retail price and the actual cost of our foods. More often than not, the cheapest foods are those that have the most pernicious impact on our communities, bodies and environments. 

Just imagine walking into a supermarket and finding the cheapest option available. I found a 67p beef lasagne ready-meal; half the price of an organic bag of carrots at £1.50, but more expensive in terms of the long term cost it has on our bodies, community and services, environments and climate.

This needs to be addressed, and the SFT advocates ‘true cost accounting’ as a means to do so. They summarise this as:

Placing a clear monetary value on the benefits and impacts of different food production systems, would enable the introduction of policy mechanisms to penalise damaging practices and reward the development of systems that deliver positive environmental and public-health outcomes.

Find out more about true cost accounting here.

Tea 2030, Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP)

As I mentioned before, the labels used to comfort our conscience when it comes to tea only tell part of the story. To link all elements from tea production to consumption together, we need collaboration – not only in rhetoric on social, environmental and economic challenges but also between sectors when acting at different levels.
Tea 2030 aims to do just this, defining itself as a ‘multi-stakeholder project exploring the challenges facing the tea sector’s future – and how to overcome them’. Using a ‘landscape approach’ (i.e. the new buzz word for holistic approach), they invite anyone within the tea value chain to work towards this vision. Existing partners include the ETP, Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance, Unilever, Tata Global Beverages, Starbucks…
The progress so far is not well documented, but the diverse coalition of organisations all working towards the same cause is enough of an achievement in itself. You can follow the Tea 2030 here.
Finally, if you have any more examples, please comment below or get in touch with me via my Contact page. There are so many labels, and too little time… so, help me out 🙂

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