Saturday, March 12, 2011

Swedes label food climate issues top priority

By: Jessie Cadle

Edited by Gina Edwards

On the menu of Max Hamburger Restaurants in Sweden, there is a picture of a voluptuous burger coupled with a label that reads “1,8 kg of CO2.” The label tells customers the carbon footprint of the food they will be consuming.

The Max Company, with help from the non-profit The Natural Step, is the first fast-food chain in the world to label their food with the amount of CO2 emissions in each meal. They are one example of Sweden’s continuing work on labeling food in an effort to give customers more sustainable options.

“For us it’s a question of trust, and doing things in a more sustainable way,” said Pär Larshans, Chief Sustainability Officer of the Max Hamburger Restaurants, a family-owned company with over 75 restaurants, based in Luleå, Sweden. “Companies not running in a more sustainable way will have big problems in the future.”

While CO2 labels continue to be the most popular form of labeling, there has been a recent increase in research on climate certification labels, which certify products only if they meet certain requirements of sustainability, said Anna Richert, Project Manager of Climate Certification for Food at The Swedish Seal, a farmer-owned organization in Stockholm.

“It boils down to guaranteeing to the consumer that improvements have been made on the product,” Richert said.

Consumer interest in food emissions stems from the 2006 release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. According to these sources and others, food emissions account for 25 percent of climate impact, seconded by Claes Johansson, Head of Sustainability at Lantmännen, the Swedish Farmers Supply and Crop Marketing Association, based in Stockholm.

“The Swedes live pretty close to nature. The relation to nature is basic for caring about the environment,” Johansson said.

Carbon Dioxide Labels

One option for reducing food emissions comes from carbon dioxide labels, like those used by Max Restaurants. The labels tell the consumer the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the specific food item from production to distribution.

While the Max Restaurant has succeeded in labeling, because they only have their menu, on a broader scale, carbon emissions are harder to calculate.

“Those carbon footprint numbers are very difficult,” said Johan Cejie, Quality Manager at KRAV, an organic labeling company based in Uppsala. “It turns out when different institutions try to calculate the number from the same data, they get numbers that are different by 150 percent.”

The number is difficult to calculate especially when companies like Walmart have such a vast amount of food products in their store, said Thomas Angervall, the Head of the Department of Food and Sustainable Food Production at the Swedish Institute of Food and Biotechnology in Göteborg, Sweden.

“It takes a lot of time and money to do these studies,” Angerval said. “It will take 100 years to label all of the food.”

The Lantmännen Company works with CO2 labels to demonstrate it is possible to calculate and show the results in a transparent way, Johansson said.

“It shows that we care about the issue. It’s hard for them to see if [the food is] good or bad, because [the number]’s hard to relate to,” he said. “It’s more the value of showing that we have the knowledge and we have the priority.”

Climate Certification Labels

While greenhouse emissions labels deal with the more quantitative side, climate certification labels deal with the qualitative side, Angervall said.

“It’s hard to understand carbon foot printing, because that figure doesn’t say anything to people,” Richert said. “If you have a piece of bread that says 0.5 and another piece of bread that says 0.75, the consumer will have very little to relate it to.”

After four years of research, both KRAV and The Swedish Seal, who have already established labels for organic foods, have started adding climate certification into their labeling system.
The new climate certification system is creating criteria for food producers, such as: they must have reduced fossil fuel on their farms, they must maintain a certain nitrogen level, and their animals must be treated in a humane way, according to the Criteria for Mitigation of Climate Impact from Food.

“Organic can go further,” Cejie said. “Organic is one step along the way, but we can still do more.”

The standards goals are two-fold: to create standards that lead to a significant difference, and to have standards that are attainable for farmers. The project estimates that most changes implemented by food producers will be paid back to them in three years, Ceije said.
“It’s more of a shifting in mindset,” he said.

One problem the certification faces is that customers can’t compare across different food groups, Angervall said.

“You can compare red meat to red meat and milk to milk, but you can’t compare milk to red meat,” he said.

Customer Response

According to studies done by the Climate Certification Project, 80 percent of consumers want a product that is climate smart, and 15-20 percent would be willing to pay 10 percent more for that product, Cejie said.

The Max Company has seen a 30 percent increase in customer loyalty with the introduction of their labels system, Larshans said.

“Transparency is a key word here,” he said. “When you talk about Egypt, when you talk about Libya, you are talking about regimes that are thrown down due to lack of transparency … the businesses of tomorrow have to be transparent.”

Overall, both Max and the labeling systems hope to create a more sustainable environment worldwide.

“Sweden is a pretty small country,” Johansson said. “Our most important role is … to be a good example.”

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