Farming and animal welfare groups have expressed concerns over DEFRA plans to introduce a labelling system to show the environmental credentials of food.

Ministers are considering whether food packaging should carry labels indicating animal welfare, how far food has travelled and whether chemicals were involved in its production.

The scheme would also include a traffic light symbol to show how healthy food is.

DEFRA hopes the scheme, one of a range of measures being considered as part of a public consultation on UK food security launched this week (10 August), would help consumers buy more environmentally-sustainable products.

Food and farming minister Jim Fitzpatrick admitted deciding whether something was environmentally-friendly or not would be complex.

Any green labelling system had to be simple enough for consumers to understand, but not create extra packaging or cost producers “an arm and a leg”, he added.

But with more than 20 food kitemark schemes already used in the UK, industry groups warned an extra system could confuse consumers.

“It’s a crowded market place for food labelling schemes already and I wouldn’t say there’s a need for something extra,” said Dominic Dyer, Crop Protection Agency chief executive.

Creating a labelling system which attempted to address chemical and fertiliser use would be difficult, he added.

“We have a strict regulatory system which protects public health – we shouldn’t be raising that argument again.

“We need more food and we need to look at science to give people the high quality, affordable and varied foods they want.”

Mark Cooper, RSPCA farmland animal senior scientific officer, warned consumers could be put off from buying British produce unless environmental labels were put on all foods.

“There needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “There’s a risk of consumers seeing a warning label and choosing an imported product thinking it’s greener, when that might not be the case.

“The whole thing needs to be thought through very carefully.”

A DEFRA spokesman said the agency was “floating the idea” of green labelling and no firm proposals had been made.

“It is something that’s going to be discussed more,” he said. “We want to get people talking about it to see if it’s a viable idea.”

caroline.stocks@rbi.co.uk