The European Commission does not favour setting up a single system for the eco-labelling of fish and fish products, according to a consultation document issued yesterday.
Instead the Commission favours setting some minimum requirements fisheries, food processors and retailers would have to follow in labelling their products with claims about the environment.
The consultation was started at the request of consumer groups, who are calling for tighter regulation of the environmental claims made by food producers and retailers about their practices forsourcing their products. Private schemes claiming products to come from environmentally-friendly sources are springing up in response to rising public concerns about the damage being done to theenvironment through current food production practices, the Commission stated.
However the demand for such labelled products remains difficult to quantify or determine, the Commission stated, quoting a US study showing that price takes precedence over the environment at theshopping till.
"In other terms, the success of an eco-labelling scheme would depend, at least in part, on the additional costs which it carries with it," the Commission stated. "Moreover,consumer interest varies from country to country, depending on market peculiarities and public perception of the concept of sustainability."
Setting only minimum standards would allow eco-labelling schemes to freely develop through public and private initiatives and according to demand as long as they comply with the minimumrequirements, the Commission stated in outlining the choices.
"The involvement of public authorities would be limited to the registration of eco-labelling schemes and the verification of their compliance with the minimum requirements," theCommission stated. "These requirements should cover technical as well as procedural and institutional aspects."
The Commission rules out leaving the market to determine what schemes they use for labelling on the grounds consumers will become confused. The Commission also rules out creating a single publiclyadministered scheme.
"The Commission considers that creating a single publicly administered eco-labelling scheme for fisheries products is neither appropriate or practical," the Commission stated. "Ifthe private sector sees advantages in and wishes to take the risk of establishing eco-labelling schemes, it should be free to do so, provided that it does not undermine major public policy objectivessuch as fair competition, objective information and the sound conservation and management of fish stocks."
International guidelines on eco-labelling have recently been adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and discussions on the issues and their potential effects on free trade areas areoccurring at World Trade Organisation (WTO).
"Such schemes have a positive role to play by helping to increase the integration of environmental protection into fisheries," stated the EU's commissioner for fisheries and maritimeaffairs, Joe Borg. "This would benefit the fisheries sector itself as its future depends on a healthy and sustainable marine environment."
In response to consumer concerns about the environment some supermarket chains have committed themselves to restrict their supply of fish to sustainable fisheries. Such schemes include Unilever'spublic announcement that it sources whitefish only from fisheries the company classifies as following "sustainable" practices. Carrefour puts a logo "Pêche responsible" or "responsiblefishing" on Icelandic cod. Other supermarkets have started to develop and join environmental certification programmes.
The debate document is available as a PDF by clicking here .