IIt’s lunchtime in a workplace cafeteria in Birmingham, and employees returning to work after months of absence during the coronavirus pandemic are noticing that something has changed. Next to sandwiches and hot and cold dishes is a small globe symbol, colored green, orange or red with a letter in the center from A to E. “Discover our new eco-labels,” reads a sign.
Researchers at the University of Oxford analyzed the ingredients of each food item on the menu and assigned the dishes an environmental impact score, from vegetable soup (an A) to lemon bagel, spring onion, cheese and with tuna (an E).
“It probably helps you start making choices,” said Natasha King, while eating a hot plant-based meal. She is employed at the Birmingham headquarters of the UK division of the Compass Group food service company. The company has partnered with the university for a trial in more than a dozen of its cafeterias across the UK to see if a label can change the way people eat.
Getting people to adopt eco-friendly food options through labels is nothing new: there are hundreds of food labels, from those that certify organic to those that promise sustainable fishing. But a new type is gaining momentum, one that sums up in a single letter multiple environmental indicators ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to water consumption, indicating the impact of the product.
Some companies in France have started using one this year and the NGO Foundation Earth announced the start of its own trial in UK and European supermarkets this fall.
The first challenge for the scientists designing the trial is the image diners see on the panels. How much information do you include in a label? How to strike a balance between efficient and practical?
During the pandemic, researchers conducted studies on an online supermarket where people were given counterfeit money to complete their fake shopping list. The trial gave insight into which labels are most likely to entice people to buy eco-friendly products. They found that the most effective way to prevent people from buying an item was to use a dark red globe symbol with the word “worst” printed on it. But while effective, it had limitations in the real world.
“You can’t get anyone to use this unless you threaten them with legislation, because they don’t mean ‘don’t buy this’,” said Brian Cook, senior researcher at the Leap program at Oxford. lead the project.
And what works for that cafeteria setting, with plenty of room for information on the walls and next to the food, may not work on food packaging in a supermarket that is already overflowing with information, much of it commissioned by. the government. “Real estate is very competitive there,” said Cook.
The next challenge in supermarkets is scale. The sandwiches, soups and hot dishes on offer at this cafeteria only scratch the surface of Compass food options. It was the job of Oxford researcher Michael Clark to review the hundreds of meals made up of around 10 ingredients each, determining the environmental impact. Doing the same for the tens of thousands of products and the myriad of ingredients in a supermarket would be a Herculean task.
Then the scientists had to create a formula to determine the environmental impact – a process full of difficult decisions using imperfect data. “There are endless ways to do it and how you weight the different metrics… how you want to push people,” Cook said.
This research team chose four indicators for the formula of this test: greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, water pollution and water use (calculated differently depending on the water scarcity in each region). They weighted each indicator equally in their equation for the overall impact.
Other research looked at land use instead of biodiversity, or using a total of 16 indicators. Whatever the choice, it can change the eco-score that comes out of it.
“Almonds, you know: great for your health and low in a lot of environmental metrics, but then you get to the water and they’re off the charts,” Cook said.
But in most cases, researchers say the biggest environmental impact will be keeping people away from meat. “Since the premise is to get people to change their behavior, this most correct and scientifically sound approach may not be the best approach,” Clark said.
He felt that a national deployment of labels might have to be based on indicators already prioritized by companies or mandated by governments, in order to make integration as easy as possible for companies.
In a corner table in the Compass cafeteria, five employees are eating together, four of them have chosen a vegetarian meal. They say many of them would have generally opted for meat.
At another table sits Jenny Haines, eating a vegetable stew (denoted C). She doesn’t often think about the environmental impact of the food she eats, but says it looked appetizing, healthy, and was placed right in front of the hot meal counter.
It was part of an intentional Compass strategy to find ways to get customers to buy food with a better environmental impact score. Plant-based dishes are placed at the top of menus and at the front of cafe counters, with meat dishes at the back. They don’t use the words “vegan” or “plant-based” so people don’t feel pressured to do so, and they renamed their dishes. For example, ‘vegan sweet potato macaroni and cheese’ has become ‘New York’s ultimate’ cheezy ‘sweet potato macaroon.
At the center of everything is taste. “Checking the box is not enough,” said Ryan Holmes, Culinary Director at Compass. “We have to put in plant-based dishes that can stand next to meat dishes.”
Some politicians are also interested in this issue. MPs from the UK and Canada have introduced private members’ bills this year to impose environmental impact labels on food.
Cook gives presentations to business groups and some policymakers in the UK, and says people are very interested in labels. He thinks that sooner or later we will see these labels in one form or another on the products.
“It’s definitely part of the toolkit of what you need,” he said. “And in terms of things that are risky for all stakeholders, it is a relatively low risk.”