Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A swimming pool for a kilo of beef

The Environment Committee in the European Parliament today established clearer rules for food labeling. Most importantly, on most meat products like pork or chicken, the place of origin must be indicated, including the place where the animal was born and the place where it was slaughtered. Furthermore, energy content, amounts of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt must be shown on the label as well. If the Council gives its ok, the EP Plenary can adopt the regulation in July 2011 (update: done).

You may remember that in June last year, the center-right in the EP strictly opposed a “traffic light system” on food items that would have meant that unhealthy products would have carried a red light and healthy products a green light (rapporteur then and now was Renate Sommer, EPP). The new regulation-to-be is certainly a good thing with regard to information, provided that it will apply to imports just as it applies to EU products. But I am still missing information on products, namely water and carbon footprint.

I would like to know that by choosing to consume a kilogram of beef, I am consuming 100,000 liters (equivalent to a 10m x 10m x 1m swimming pool) of virtual water. And when I choose to eat pork, I want to be aware that it requires around 8.8 kg of CO2 emissions/kg, transportation not counted. As a consumer, I want to have the possibility of making an informed choice, even though I admit that some consumers would probably be overburdened and confused with so much information.

But my hope is that one of the most important areas of our daily life, namely food quality, could be put under the same kind of political control as the public sector. In the past, enterprises in Europe have repeatedly broken food safety regulations to make a profit, and demanding a transparent production process would force more cheating enterprises out of business.

Calculating environmental data will undoubtedly be expensive for an enterprise*. Yet, it doesn’t appear so difficult for a food chain to conduct worldwide price analyses and to conclude sourcing agreements without taking externalities into consideration. Including water and carbon cost into the analysis only takes it a step further. And maybe, some enterprises would reconsider their sourcing decisions when they are put into the bright light of popular scrutiny.

But for all that, we first need to elect a more radical kind of European Parliament.

*Have a look here (p.15) how Arjen Hoekstra calculated the water footprint.

Update (20/04/2011): Between "set-back" and "right decision" - read here what MEPs say about the package that they adopted. 
Update (12/07/2011): It appears that there is some cautious movement on water footprint and carbon footprint labeling. 

1 comment:

  1. Well, in fact these steps seem likely to spread. As in France, when soon will be a labeling of environmental informations on a little range of product as a "testing phase" prior to a further development. It was a proposal of the Grenelle de l'Environnement 2 (among the very few that remained basically unchanged by corporate lobbies, I think).
    But it raise the problem of controlling the accuracy of the data monitoring by enterprises : who is gonna check that the figuring is well done and data are not distorted ?

    Greetings from Poitiers !