First it was new allergen labelling, then calories, and now the government is proposing caterers provide details on animal welfare standards. Nick Hughes reports.
Out of home food and drink businesses are staring at a triple whammy of labelling legislation if fresh government plans come to fruition.
Just weeks before new allergen labels became law on October 1st, and a mere six months before calorie labels on products and menus will become mandatory, the government said it intends to consult on proposals to require businesses to provide information on animal welfare standards for meat and dairy products.
Making good on a promise set out in its Agriculture Bill, the government is inviting views on how new labels could help the public identify and support high welfare standards or more easily choose to buy products from British farmers and producers.
Although it acknowledges it is easier to label packaged food than the kind of prepared food more commonly found in a foodservice setting, the government is looking closely at how welfare information could also be provided to consumers in a mass catering environment.
Clear information at the point of service has long been championed by campaigners as an effective way of encouraging more sustainable buying habits. But with businesses still recovering from the effects of the pandemic is the current labelling landslide a case of too much too soon?
That animal welfare labelling is on the government’s agenda should come as no surprise. One of the so-called ‘Brexit dividends’ from a food perspective was the opportunity for the UK to set its own labelling laws, previously governed by the EU. With baseline UK welfare standards among the highest in the world, the government clearly senses an opportunity to champion ‘brand Britain’.
“This call for evidence is a first step in ensuring that we fully meet consumers’ needs, and fly the flag for the high standards for which our farmers are renowned,” said environment secretary George Eustice on announcing the proposal.
Consumer surveys frequently show animal welfare as a concern for the British public. A January 2021 survey by the Soil Association found that 38% of respondents said US-style industrial pig and chicken farms should be banned here with 80% citing animal welfare as the main concern.
Despite this, there is currently no clear, consistent way to differentiate between products that meet or exceed the UK’s baseline welfare regulations – whether domestically produced or imported – and those that do not.
Mandatory labelling regulations for animal welfare apply only to shell eggs, on which a producer code designates the farming method, for example organic, free range, barn or cage. Otherwise, consumers rely on a plethora of voluntary assurance and certification schemes to navigate the regulatory gaps.
In foodservice this can be tricky. Penetration of welfare labels, such as RSPCA Assured, is far greater in the retail sector where opportunities to communicate provenance to customers are more readily available on shelves and on packs. Tiered ranges also mean supermarkets can offer customers the choice of paying sometimes eye-watering premiums for higher welfare products (free-range chicken is on average priced at a 115% premium, according to the government) while still offering a low-cost alternative.
In a foodservice setting, even when meat is certified to a higher standard it may not be promoted as such. Labelling loose or component products can be challenging, while some contributors to Footprint’s forthcoming ‘Caterer’s Guide to Better Meat’ report highlighted a lack of willingness or ability among some clients to communicate the provenance of meat at the point of sale.
The government consultation will focus on the potential scope, format, and enforcement of a new welfare labelling scheme, as well as the actual welfare standards that might underpin it. These could be based on inputs such as method of production; outcomes such as prevalence of disease or expression of natural behaviours; or a combination of the two, with welfare standards reflecting both differing welfare outcomes and production systems.
Consideration will also be given to how the label might look with a tiered rating system, a descriptive label, and a branded certification logo all potential options.
Farming leaders are not fully sold on the idea of a dedicated, standalone welfare label. The NFU says it has long called for clear, unambiguous labelling to help shoppers understand where products have come from and make informed decisions on the food they buy. However, a spokesperson adds: “We don’t believe welfare or method of production labelling is enough to meet consumers expectations on standards and moves to introduce such a system may over-simplify a complex area, cause confusion for the public and carry an unreasonable burden to food and farming businesses.”
Animal welfare campaigners, on the other hand, have welcomed the proposals and urged the government to go as far as possible. Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) is calling for the new labelling policy to cover all meat and dairy in shops, restaurants and public canteens. “We’ve already seen with eggs that, when shoppers have clear information about farming systems, they adjust their buying habits,” says James West, CIWF senior policy manager.
One of the major challenges with providing this kind of clear information is that it comes at a considerable cost to businesses. Estimates suggest the requirement for out of home businesses to label the calories on menu items could cost up to £305m over a 25-year period.
Given the pandemic-related disruption faced by businesses – and the fact that in the view of one food lawyer “it is potentially quite confusing to understand which businesses and products are affected” by new calorie laws – it’s little wonder that industry leaders are pushing for the implementation date to be pushed back from April 6th next year.
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls recently warned of the risk further legislation poses to the sector’s recovery. She has urged the government to “consider delaying the implementation of upcoming calorie labelling legislation, to give businesses the required time to get back on their feet and prepare for future food labelling changes in a reasonable timeframe”.
The trade body has already been working with the Food Standards Agency to ensure businesses are compliant with another new labelling requirement, this time regarding allergens. ‘Natasha’s Law’ – so called because it originated following the death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who suffered an allergic reaction to a Pret a Manger baguette – requires all businesses selling pre-packed food for direct sale to provide full ingredient labelling including allergens.
In practice, this includes sandwiches packaged and sold from the same premises, or fast food wrapped or packaged before a customer selects or orders it.
Reports from experts on the ground suggest that early levels of compliance with the new allergen law are mixed. "Big businesses are all over this and have put a huge amount of effort into complying,” says one experienced local authority environmental health professional (EHP). “Great credit to them because it's a big task to get right."
The same EHP, however, is less effusive about the efforts of some (albeit not all) smaller operators, noting that in many cases it remains a better option for customers to “just ask” members of staff about allergens rather than “rely on the label attempt”.
It’s hard not to have some sympathy with smaller businesses. Full ingredient labels are potentially long and complex to implement, especially where menus and ingredients change frequently.
Businesses with fewer than 250 employees will be exempt from calorie labelling requirements, but for those companies already grappling with allergen laws a new wave of welfare labelling rules would be much to bear.
There’s a long way to go before such labels become a reality, but with new trade deals fuelling public awareness of contrasting welfare standards at home and abroad the demand for greater transparency over what we eat is only set to increase.
As ever where labelling laws are concerned, striking the right balance between consumer information and business burden will be among government’s greatest challenges.