Chasing Food Labels

Tables, graphs, infographics and symbols. We usually deal with food labels and have seen all sorts of things. Speaking of labels, the Italian Ministries of Economic Development, Health and Agriculture announced they would endorse the implementation of the so-called NutrInform Battery system, where a battery-style symbol indicates the nutritional value of a food item.

Basically, the Italian response to the notorious “traffic light labeling”, largely used in the United Kingdom with France in favor of this practice, and then widespread in several European countries, where the traffic light label shows how often a food item should be consumed. From “anytime you like” green to “with great moderation” red.

Providing consumers with the right tool to autonomously manage their own diets according to the quantities suggested by the European Union, without going into too much detail, is surely positive, but it is worth remembering that the mere nutritional value, highly relevant as it is, does not contain all the basic elements of a conscious food choice per se.

Sure enough, more and more people now are willing to know how that item was made, about its environmental impact and, in case of an animal byproduct, what the animals’ feed was and how they were raised. There is quite a difference between cattle raised in open range conditions, fed just with grass and hay, and that may access a wood freely, and silage-fed animals who experienced intensive farming in cowsheds, with no room for movement, and consequently taking higher doses of drugs to remain healthy in such a confined environment.

Definitely a consistent difference both in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact (and this reflects on milk and meat quality). Nevertheless, it is impossibile to perceive all the above just looking at the nutritional value and, therefore, this information remains undetectable through traditional labeling.

It is no time for a graph trying to let us know about the amount of sugar, proteins and fats we are ingesting when we have a slice of bread. We definitely need to know if any pesticides or fertilizers were used to grow wheat, and where it is from, how it was processed into flour and if any enhancers were added. And again, the distance between the mill and the bakery, which yeasts were used to make the dough and, why not, who the bread-maker was, as well as the one who physically baked it.

And careful, since we are not talking science fiction here, all of this already exists.

Slow Food launched the Narrative Label some years ago, with the aim to provide the consumers precisely with this information. A more and more popular tool that is spreading like wildfire and is being largely used by Italian food-makers, the latest is Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano, currently testing these labels in some creameries.

And there is no need to have labels as QR code like the one that Cooperativa Alce Nero is already using, for instance, is just perfect to give access to a number of data that were impossible to obtain not long ago, including multimedia clips and material. This is what technology serving people is all about, and future labeling will surely work this way. The virtuous ones, those who have a major interest in letting consumers know how they work, are then rightfully rewarded.

Food production is one of the main reasons for the climate and environmental emergency we are all experiencing, and food sovereignty is also threatened by a deteriorating environment. We need to retrace all the steps of the food chain, to find a way out from this vicious circle seeing food as a tormentor and a victim at the same time – this is how we can make aware and conscious decisions.

The ideas coming from the policy-making side should be braver in this sense.

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