Stroll down any supermarket aisle. On every shelf, a confusion of food labels. How many of us understand every one? Even if we did, that convenience store is the wild west, our most in-the-face example of the free market in action. With so few labels actually policed, what can be trusted to mean what it claims?
The Independent surveyed four well-known arbiters of supposedly quality food: Red Tractor, British Lion Mark, RSPCA Freedom Food and Soil Association. Gold standard at 9/10 was the Soil Association, followed by RSPCA with 5/10. After that the ratings plummet, with British Lion Mark and the theoretically wholesome Red Tractor each tieing for last place with a dismal 2/10.
Now look further into that 20%. It signifies that Red Tractor obeys British legislation in food standards. All good, you’d think; aren’t ours better than most others from overseas? Maybe so. But it also means that food certified thus is compromised: by pesticides, by artificial fertilisers, by factory farming, by livestock that sees neither blue sky nor grass. I’m certain that if consumers truly understood the subtexts of food packaging, were able to put faith in the standards and were unequivocally clear about what they were purchasing, most would shun all current labels except that of the Soil Association.
I firmly believe we should use more humane and environmentally sound, less polluting methods of food production. At present, certification by the Soil Association is the only dependable standard. But it’s expensive; registering for organic status costs orders of magnitude more than Red Tractor. Yet the more people are confused by a plethera of labels, the less they understand of the Soil Association and its objectives. And the less they’ll pay – short of being dragged on a tour of a factory farm whenever they order a lunchtime BLT.
So I’m campaigning to make a numerical grading system of better food labelling a reality. Based on 1-to-5 kite-marked grades, with 5 representing the quality demanded by the Soil Association, the scheme should be targeted at all food providers, including supermarkets, food wholesalers, restaurants and takeaways. The scheme will be based on two main provisions: a compulsory, single, kite-marked food-labelling system that is easy to explain and which everybody can understand; and a way to ensure that producers and outlets adhere to the conditions of the standard they claim.
Given the formidable lobbying power of Big Food, from producers to retailers, and the intensely complex issues attending the feeding of our growing global population, I’ll readily concede that this is a huge ask. To be properly effective, any kite-marking system must be enshrined in law and have real teeth. If an organisation fails to meet its claimed standards, an example will have to be made, backed by substantial financial penalties.
For implementation, we need to bring together all of the many charities, ginger groups and influencers that care about how we produce, prepare, package and consume food and its impact on the broader environment. Then we must campaign vigorously enough to put the topic squarely before the public. And keep it there.
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