Carbon footprint labels on food products in Britain

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The World's Laura Lynch reports that British consumers are finding two labels now on their food ? one for nutritional facts, the other on the food's carbon footprint.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Last week we reported on new online technologies to help consumers track the environment footprint of some products. Well, other ways of monitoring the impacts of products are emerging as well. In Britain some food products are now sporting carbon footprint labels alongside their nutrition labels. The World's Laura Lynch has the story.

LAURA LYNCH: Britain's biggest grocery store chain Tesco is all about selling food. But lately the store has started selling itself as an environmental champion too. Two years ago Tesco joined a program to put labels on a handful of products, showing the carbon dioxide emissions generated to create them. Chloe Meacher is Tesco's climate change manager.

MEACHER: They launched 20 products, orange juice, washing detergents, light bulbs and potatoes and we've now got 120.

LYNCH: Tesco worked with the Carbon Trust, an environmental consulting group funded by the British government. The Trust has offered to calculate carbon footprints for companies in exchange for a commitment to reduce their CO2 output. The first product foot printed was Walker's Potato Chips. The Trust's Euan Murray says the calculation starts all the way back on the farm.

EUAN MURRAY: That's the emissions from the farmer plowing the fields. It's making the packaging. It's then everything that goes on in the factory and then it's shipping to the store, and then of course you and buying them and disposing of the packaging.

LYNCH: Murray says each of those stages uses energy and produces greenhouse emissions. The total for the chips, a standard size bag, was 85 grams of CO2. For consumers it's likely only a number. And with no other chip brands carrying the label, it's impossible to choose the product with the smallest footprint. But what they can see is the fact that Walker's reduced its carbon emissions by seven percent over the last two years. As with Tesco's, Walker's has agreed to the requirements of the Carbon Trust. In order to get the carbon label, it had to find ways to cut emissions. For Walker's it meant switching to British potatoes to cut food miles, running trucks on biodiesel containing used cooking oil and other measures. All of the effort is attractive to companies because changes like these usually mean cutting costs too. The Carbon Trust's Euan Murray says more and more companies are signing up from all over the world.

MURRAY: We've really started to build momentum in companies working across their supply chains and also helping consumers realize that actually their credit card is perhaps the most powerful weapon that they all have in the fight against climate change.

LYNCH: Now, Tesco wouldn't allow me to go into one of its stores to talk to customers about the carbon labels. So instead, I took a couple of Tesco's products to some consumers. This is London's Borough market, a food eater's fun fair. It's where I found Richard Travis. He sometimes shops at Tesco's and agreed to a little test. I showed him two cartons of Tesco milk. And I'm wondering if you can look at these and tell me what difference you see between the two of them.

RICHARD TRAVIS: That's go a recycling mark on it. That one doesn't. One's labeled organic, and the other one isn't.

LYNCH: But that's not the only difference. I point out what he missed, the carbon footprint label on the regular milk. Do you know what this is?

TRAVIS: I've seen it on things recently, but no I don't know what it is.

LYNCH: But Travis says now that he knows about it, the carbon footprint label might make a difference in his shopping.

TRAVIS: We've tried to shop locally, not too many food miles, and we recycle. If I thought that by doing something it was reducing or had a lower than benchmark CO2, then actually I would think that was probably a good thing.

LYNCH: But that creates another dilemma for people like Travis; how to choose between the regular milk with the carbon footprint label and the organic milk without it. Which has the lower total environmental impact? As of now, there's no way for consumers to know. Tesco says its organic milk isn't labeled. But Chloe Meacher from Tesco says the chain does plan to eventually label all of its store brand products. And she says the chain believes it will ultimately be good for the bottom line.

MEACHER: If we can be there with the information about which products are low carbon, we believe that customers will reward us.

LYNCH: Right now Euan Murray says the Carbon Trust is working with more than 5,000 products and more than 65 brands across Britain, Europe, North America and Asia.

MURRAY: But of course, we still have a long way to go to turn this into something that really does become a global standard and that we get businesses buying into this idea and that they see value in their brands being positioned in that lower carbon way.

LYNCH: And the carbon label might not be the end of what some might worry is an information overload for consumers. There is a new movement afoot for water footprint labels, to show how many gallons of H2O are used to create products. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch in London.