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Carbon Labeling and the Food Industry

Carbon labeling on foods and menu items is already a hot topic for 2021 as people are more conscious than ever of the foods they eat and as companies work to become more climate friendly. Simply put, carbon labels, or carbon emission labels, would advise consumers of the carbon dioxide emissions created from the products or food they are purchasing. Consider going to the grocery store and picking up an item. Do you consider the carbon footprint of a product’s production, even though food production contributes to approximately a quarter of global carbon emissions? Sandra Noonan, the Chief Sustainability Officer of Just Salad,  2019 winner of the EPA’s WasteWise Regional Award, explained on The Food Institute Podcast that “we are entering an era where consumers want to have a positive impact on the trajectory of climate change through their consumption, through their choices, and the carbon label is a way to introduce transparency into the decision making stage for the consumer.” Just Salad introduced their own carbon labeling on their menu in September 2020. Another major brand that has implemented carbon labeling in 2020 is Quorn, a meat alternative producer. Chief Commercial Officer, Peter Harrison, remarked: “This is about giving people the information needed to make informed decisions about the food they eat and the effect it has on our planet’s climate – in the same way, that nutrition information is clearly labeled to help inform decisions on health.”

How can the carbon lifecycle of foods be calculated?

The estimate of greenhouse gasses emitted in the lifecycle of a food product can be a little complex. A carbon label would be the total amount of carbon produced during its production, distribution, use, and disposal. There is currently no standardized way of measuring a company’s carbon output, but formulas usually also consider the emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. Calculating a complete estimate of a product’s carbon footprint is traditionally done through a “lifecycle assessment”. Laura Timlin, Director of Business Services at Carbon Trust, explains that factors can include forest removal to create farmland, energy to heat greenhouses, the carbon emitted to make the packaging, transporting the item — or what they call “cradle to grave.”

 What do consumers say?

Calculating the carbon footprint on a company’s products helps understand sustainability practices and mitigate carbon-heavy areas of production. This also provides transparency to people who are looking to participate in climate friendly consumption. In fact, in a survey taken last year of 10,500 consumers in the U.S. and Europe, 42% agree that it is important to know the company is taking action to reduce their carbon footprint. 54% of Americans said they consider a company’s carbon footprint when choosing what to purchase. Additionally, in the last two years, 67% of respondents admitted that they believe a recognizable carbon label on products is a good idea.

How can my company get onboard?

In the last few years, climate change has cultivated a much more aware and informed public. As climate change affects more lives directly, consumers are leveraging their purchasing power to drive decarbonization and transparency. For food producers, manufacturers, and stakeholders there are resources to gain more insight on what carbon labeling means. The Food Institute, partnering with food and agriculture firm, Olsson Weeda Frank Terman Matz PC (OFW), is holding a webinar on February 4, 2021. The Carbon Labeling Guidelines – For the Food Industry web event will discuss everything from the origins of carbon emissions labeling to what companies are doing now, the legal framework, and the roles of USDA, the FTC, and the FDA. The event invites not only food and beverage industry professionals and manufacturers looking to learn more about implementing a carbon labeling program. Retail Executives, who want to examine marketing strategies for implementing carbon rating programs, Regulatory Affairs Professionals who want to learn the legal boundaries of carbon labeling programs, and Chief Sustainability Officers and Quality Assurance VPs who are looking to develop best practices for a carbon labeling program and a dependable certification program can also greatly benefit from the topics being discussed.

For more information about what your company can do about carbon emissions labeling programs, contact food labeling experts from OFW, Michael O’Flaherty and Bruce Silverglade.

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