CLEARER FOOD labels will not only boost support for local food businesses but hold companies accountable for their food sourcing habits.

These were some of the key messages raised ahead of Defra revealing the findings of its recent consultation exploring possible reforms to food labelling.

The UK Government launched the consultation back in September, looking to hear from stakeholders on how reforms to labelling and consumer information could create a food system which stimulates better demand for environmentally friendly and high welfare products, as well as improved profitability.

Two months since the consultation ended and with Defra still to reveal its findings, policy food expert Professor Tim Lang, at City University London, suggested that although many consumers aren’t interested in food labels, clearer labelling would ensure companies declared and checked what was going into their products.

“It is hard to get good labelling,” said Professor Lang. “Getting nutrition labelling, well it is still really a work in progress, as for environmental labelling, there isn't any and animal welfare is all left to voluntary logos. It is frankly all a bit of a mess when it comes to the simplest method of trying to enable consumers to make informed choices.”

His suggestion was for virtual labels to be explored, pointing out that it would be too complicated to include too much information on one package, but still felt it was important to have that information available to consumers and to hold companies accountable for their sourcing.

“It will get companies to declare what they have,” he continued. “It makes them rethink, do they really know what is in their product? You'd be surprised how often companies don't know what is in their products,” he added, pointing to various meat fraud scandals over the years.

Founder of Keep Scotland the Brand, Ruth Watson, agreed with the need to ensure information can be accessible to consumers, be that virtually or on a physical label. "There is a real opportunity to give consumers access to meaningful information via QR codes, as Professor Lang suggests,” she told The Scottish Farmer. “Clear, easily accessible, honest labels give people confidence in the product and help them to make informed choices.

"Food labelling is not within the powers of the Scottish Government and I hope any moves taken at Westminster by DEFRA would tangibly take into account the views of Scotland’s agricultural, food, and drink producers."

Ms Watson went on to say that with clear labelling, there was an opportunity for Scotland’s farmers to stand out from the crowd and that origin labels were good for business.

Read more: Proper labelling of home-grown food needed

“Research repeatedly shows Scotland's name is good for business. The more local the place of origin labels, the better it can be for sales. If people can see it is local on the label, they can support local on the table. Ethical dairies are a good example of businesses developing customer loyalty to a product by engaging with consumer concerns, something which is increasingly important to many people,” she concluded.