With so many sustainability labels out there, in shops and now increasingly in restaurants too, opportunities for customer confusion – and abuse by unscrupulous business owners – are becoming equally plentiful. Emily Crawley, from Sustain’s Ethical Eats project, charts a path through the minefield.
Shoppers in supermarkets have long been baffled by an array of labels making sustainability claims – and with over 80 different ethical and food assurance schemes, it’s hardly surprising there’s uncertainty about which ones to choose. Now, that same look of bewilderment can also be found on the faces of restaurant diners, as canny restaurateurs start to capitalise on the growing market for ethical food by adopting some of these labels.
While there are many honest, hardworking businesses out there, providing high quality sustainable food, public confidence in the claims made by restaurants has been damaged by media coverage of devious businesses conning customers, as well as widespread doubts about ‘greenwash’.
Recently published research by Local Government Regulation, which oversees local council regulation, found that 18 per cent of local claims are ’undoubtedly false’, with restaurants being the worst culprits (compared to other sectors such as retail and manufacture)
Or take the high profile case of Julie's Restaurant & Bar, in London, which was fined £7,500 for falsely claiming that items on its menu were organic. The case was only brought to the public’s attention thanks to a tip-off from a disgruntled supplier, and it didn’t hurt that the restaurant was frequented by royalty and film stars. There’s nothing like a scandal involving Prince Charles, Colin Firth, and Kate Moss to generate a bit of publicity.
Clearly consumers want information about provenance, but this information needs to be reliable, and fraudulent claims should be dealt with more severely to maintain trust. Currently it falls to overstretched local councils to take action on false advertising claims in local restaurants which, in the current economic situation, may not be a priority. But if the claims aren’t being policed, what hope have honest restaurants got of competing fairly in the market, and how can diners trust that what’s on their plate is something that they’d be happy to eat?
A broader problem than dishonesty is that labels may just be too blunt an instrument to inform customers properly. Designing and enforcing a robust and clear food-labelling scheme can be devilishly difficult, especially if, as has been claimed, consumers only spend five seconds reading each product label. Many terms such as ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ have no legal definitions, and some legally defined standards such as ‘free range’ have no specific logo. The plethora of labelling schemes also adds to confusion.
The standards required to attain certification also vary widely, and some certification schemes have been criticised as being primarily revenue-generating. If some producers have to pay significant sums to have their goods accredited, other equally good producers may simply not be able to afford the logo.
So what’s the answer? Well, some power rests with you, the customer. You can:
|Freedom Food: UK farm assurance scheme for higher livestock welfare standards, independently assessed by the RSPCA. http://www.rspca.org.uk/freedomfood|
|Red Tractor: Checks that UK farm produce (meat, poultry and dairy) meet basic standards of safety, hygiene, welfare and environmental good practice. http://www.redtractor.org.uk/|
|Marine Stewardship Council: Eco-label certifying the fish comes from a fishery that has been independently assessed as sustainable. While anyone can sell MSC fish, only those who have been through the ‘chain of custody’ process - such as sushi restaurant Moshi Moshi - can actually promote it as such and use the 'fish with a tick' logo. http://www.msc.org/|
|Organic: There are several organic certifications, but the most widespread is the Soil Association’s. All organic food has to meet legal standards that ensure the food has been produced to high animal welfare and environmental standards. Restaurants can be certified as organic (like the Duke of Cambridge gastro-pub has) if they use organically-farmed produce. http://www.soilassociation.org/|
|Fairtrade: Ensures that farmers and workers in poor countries have good working conditions, work in co-operatives, receive a fair price for what they produce and a premium to invest in social projects. http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/|
|Rainforest Alliance: Promotes environmental standards that conserve wildlife and habitats, and ensure reasonable working conditions for workers and their communities. http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/|
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