Transparency about sustainable practices is enabled by scanning technologies allowing consumers access to product information at the point of sale.
Consumer’s desire for transparency in food labeling was a major theme at the 2015 Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco. This meeting is part of a continuing series of international summits focusing on issues in the food industry concerning sustainability and eco-labels, such as Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and others. Issues discussed included, developing standards, metrics for measuring performance, labeling options, as well as stories of success from companies around the globe. As this is a rapidly developing and evolving topic, the agenda covered all aspects of the food supply from farming methods to consumer behaviors.
One statistic noted at the summit was a remarkably high 92% of consumers think genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be labeled on food packages; but the presence of GMOs would not deter most of them from buying the product. At the end of the day, consumers want to know what’s in their food to be able to make informed choices. And they expect companies to be upfront about ingredient information, as well as business practices.
To this point, there are several apps for mobile devices now available ranking food products according to manufacturer transparency and environment impact. Several use scanning technology so that a consumer can immediately access such information at the point of sale. Eco-labeling, those labels that represent some environmental/ethical/sustainability attributes, are also becoming more prevalent in the marketplace, even at mainstream grocery stores. Experts predict consumers will only become more interested in transparency, demanding accountability from food manufacturers.
It was also very clear at the Summit that there is still considerable debate as to what should be included in the topic of ‘sustainability’. Farming methods, carbon footprint, and greenhouse gas emissions have long been tightly associated with sustainable food practices, but other aspects are now included in the conversation including animal welfare, biodiversity, sustainable packaging, and waste management. And extremely new to the discussion is nutrition.
Adam Drewnowski, Professor at the University of Washington, has often remarked that the most sustainable crop grown in the U.S., based on greenhouse gas emissions, is sugar. Obviously, it does not make sense to consume more sugar from a holistic health perspective, or any nutrient-poor food just because it’s associated with a low carbon footprint. The nutritional attributes of a food needs to be part of the sustainability discussion. Exactly how nutrition fits into the bigger picture is yet to be determined and worthy of engagement by nutrition and health professionals.