Labelling moves from calories to carbon

The World Resources Institute has announced a new certification scheme that will pinpoint “climate-friendly” items on menus.

The “cool food meals” badge identifies dishes with a lower carbon footprint, in line with what WRI research finds is needed by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“Just as consumers can make decisions based on nutritional information, they can also decide what to eat based on the climate impact of a dish,” WRI said.

Interest in environmental labelling of meals and food products is gathering pace. A February/March 2020 poll of 2,071 adults in the UK showed that 35% now feel it is important to know that a brand they are buying is “taking action to reduce the product’s footprint”; this compares with 24% in 2016. Previous research also showed that three in four adults would prefer to eat in a restaurant that displays carbon footprint details on its menus.

Currently, very few brands offer up such information on-pack; Quorn and Oatly are two that do. Interest is most pronounced amongst those in the plant-based category. However, Unilever is among a number of food brands that is now actively pursing a rollout of carbon labels.

“Cool food meals help people understand that taking action is as simple as what we eat,” said Daniel Vennard, director of sustainable diets at WRI.

US bakery-café chain Panera Bread is the first company with menu items to receive the new certification. Panera will label cool food meals across its entire digital menu, with the badge appearing on the website and mobile app.

WRI calculates a dish’s carbon footprint by analysing the emissions from the agricultural supply chains and the land used for production. If the footprint falls below an established per-meal threshold and meets a “nutrition safeguard”, it is approved as a cool food meal. And it’s not only meat-free or dairy-free meals that make the grade: the chipotle chicken avocado melt and broccoli cheddar soup on Panera’s menu are both classed as “cool food”.

Through its cool food initiative, WRI also leads the cool food pledge, which helps restaurants, hospitals, hotels, universities, and cities tap the latest behavioural science to cut emissions from the food they serve.

Strategies include changing menu layouts and language to help consumers more often choose low-carbon options. Browns, Cambridge University, the city of Copenhagen (Denmark), Harvester and Nestlé are the newest members to sign on to the cool food pledge, which launched in 2018. Preliminary data for 2019 show those involved have already reduced their food-related emissions by 3% collectively, which is ahead of the pace needed to meet the 25% by 2030 target.

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