Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Food industry has come a long way during the last one century and to day consumer has the wherewithal to understand fully the history and characteristics of food being purchased from the market. Food industry has been forced to be more transparent about the products offered by them and the mandatory labeling regulations provide detailed information about the contents based on which consumer can buy the requirements with great discretion. Information such as calories, saturated fat, trans fat, dietary fiber, sugar etc tells a lot about the health value of a product, though such developments did not had much impact on the obesity epidemic that is ravaging the population in many wealthy countries. Another dimension to labeling is the need for letting the consumer know about the energy efficiency of a food product during its journey from farm to the fork. This is an issue which is becoming critical with each passing day with the fossil fuel crunch facing humanity assuming dangerous proportions due to their non-renewable nature. The DECAL system of labeling which is becoming popular in some countries may help food industry to educate the consumer regarding the energy input that has gone to make and deliver the product at the retail shelves.

"Americans use more oil than people in any other developed country, about twice as much per capita, on average, as Britons. Indeed, our appetite for petroleum, like our fondness of fast foods, has spawned a kind of obesity epidemic, but one without conspicuous symptoms like high blood pressure and diabetes. And because we don't see how much energy goes into the products and services we purchase, we're shielded from knowing the full extent of our personal energy demands — and unprepared when rising fuel prices increase the cost of everything else. This illusion stems, in part, from a measurement problem: while we expect and understand labels on our food products that quantify caloric, fat and nutrient content, we have no clear way of measuring the amount of energy it takes to make our products and propel our daily activities. There's no reason we can't have energy labels, too. For example, in Europe, Tesco, a supermarket chain, has begun a "carbon labeling" program for some 500 products, which displays the amount of energy consumed and greenhouse gases generated from their production, transportation and use. We could do the same thing here, with labels providing a product or service's "daily energy calories." Along with physical labels, imagine a smartphone app — we'll call it "Decal" for short — that would scan a product's bar code and report how much energy it took to produce that item. Like the nutritional data on the backs of food products, Decal would give consumers a user-friendly, universal measure that they could use to compare products or count their daily energy intake. For example, the app would enable an energy dieter to scan two otherwise identical loaves of bread and see which one required less energy to produce. Decal would have applications beyond the grocery-store shelf. By synchronizing with on board computers in cars, buses and trains, it could tell you how much energy you use during daily errands and commutes. It would sync to a smart energy meter in your home to evaluate how much power you're using and which appliances are the biggest guzzlers. And at the end of the day, the app would generate your total energy diet: a Decal "score" that would quantify how many total energy calories you've consumed. Once Decal took hold, the Department of Energy could recommend daily energy allowances, in the same way the Department of Agriculture recommends daily intakes of different nutrients. Experts could offer "diet" plans for energy-efficient lifestyles, and the Internal Revenue Service could offer tax rebates to families that achieve certain energy-calorie reductions".

Though conceptually it is a good idea, how far this will be effective at the field level remains to be seen. From the logistical point of view, adoption of DECAL by a few large companies may not make any impact because consumer will have no way to decide which products are better from energy expenditure angle when choices are limited. Added to this there is the issue of quality and how can the industry persuade the consumer to buy energy efficient products in preference to tastier ones which might have a higher DECAL value? If front of the pack labeling laws which have been in operation since last 2-3 decades did not persuade consumers to go for healthier foods as reflected by its lack of impact on the continuing obesity saga, will the DECAL score declaration help in moderating fossil fuel consumption? No one can be sure.


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