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Should the EU ecolabel be extended to the food sector?

A decision of the European Union on whether an ecolabel should be launched for food, feed and drink products is expected in the first half of 2012.

A recently released feasibility study conducted by Oakdene Hollins, FiBL and the University of Göttingen shows that relevant expertise and significant resources are needed before launching an ecolabel for food, feed and drink products in the European Union (EU). It was also found that potential consumer confusion with the organic label would call for awareness building campaigns, requiring additional financial resources.

The EU ecolabel is a voluntary scheme that forms part of the EU policy to encourage more sustainable consumption and production. To date, criteria for the EU ecolabel scheme has been developed for products in the non-food sector only. The Regulation (66/100) governing the scheme required this feasibility study before further consideration of the ecolabel for the food sector.

Why is an ecolabel being considered?

The environmental impacts of the production and processing of food, feed and drinks make up between 20 and 30 percent of the total environmental impacts of consumable goods in the EU. In the case of eutrophication (the accumulation of nutrients in water causing a reduction in oxygen availability) they account for as much as 58 percent of total impacts. The EU has over 18 million companies and most are too small to use environmental management systems. An ecolabel could enable these companies to reduce their impact in much the same way as private households. To date, there is no label in place adequately accounting for the overall environmental impacts of production as well as processing of food, feed and drinks.

High costs and "label confusion" as deterrent

Developing suitable criteria for such an ecolabel as well as the assessment of industry applications is known to be resource intensive. Another area that needs to be examined further is the potential for “label confusion” among consumers, especially with regard to the existing organic labels already in place. Avoiding such confusion will also contribute to the costs of operating such a label.

Some stakeholders, such as the European Group of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM EU Group), clearly opposed to the label, said the EU ecolabel was likely to be confused with organic labels due to a similar expectation by consumers, resulting in adverse effects on the credibility of the organic label and its market share. Furthermore, they also mention legal problems associated with the term “eco” as it is a legally protected term that has the same meaning as “biological” and “organic” in the EU legislation as well as in the Codex Alimentarius Guidelines for organically produced food, which is a  Programme of the United Nations giving guidance to governments.

Further concerns from the organic sector

The IFOAM EU Group stated, “We fear that the extension of the EU Ecolabel for food will result in two competing labels (organic and ecolabel) based on similar characteristics and attributes (no chemical fertilizers, no chemical pesticides, no GMOs, good animal welfare, etc.) on the food market that will not cause more clarity but more confusion to consumers. This will undermine the achievements and the success of organic production and production systems that already sets clear environmental standards in food production and has done so for decades.“

On behalf of the organic sector as a whole, IFOAM calls for the EU regulation to introduce additional requirements that an organic operation must meet to achieve an environmental management system that secures "an effective means to measure and evaluate its environmental performance and impact."

Further information

Contacts at FiBL