Lobbying to prevent the extension of country of origin labelling (COOL) to all meat and poultry products - even when used as minor ingredients in complex processed foods - has stepped up a gear as major food manufacturers have continued to question its feasibility.
COOL is already compulsory for certain foods, such as beef, olive oil and fresh fruit. However, members of the European Parliament recently voted (at the first reading of the Food Information Regulation on June 16) to extend it to other single-ingredient products including meat, poultry and dairy products.
They also voted for mandatory COOL on meat, poultry and fish when used as ingredients in processed foods such as ready meals, stews and pizza.
Speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk following the vote, Nestlé's head of R&D communications Dr Hilary Green said: "The extension of COOL is not something we welcome. The country of origin in some products we make changes regularly due to availability and quality issues and having to change labelling to reflect this every time we make a switch is very impractical and I would argue doesn't add any value to consumers."
The Provision Trade Federation (PTF) is also opposed to extending COOL further, particularly for composite products, director general Clare Cheney told Food Manufacture.co.uk: "Many [of our members] query whether consumers really want the level of detail on origin labelling that had been agreed by the Parliament, given that Food Standards Agency research indicates that it is a low priority for them."
She added: "PTF members do not support compulsory labelling of origin which is believed to be contrary to the spirit of the single market and the principle of free movement of goods. Mandatory COOL also creates significant additional costs with little obvious benefit to the consumer."
"The existing voluntary approach allows those who wish to market their products on the basis of origin to do so, without burdening others and increasing costs to the industry and consumers. Any requirement to provide details of the country of birth, rearing and slaughter for meat would be particularly problematic."
Restriction on trade?
The British Meat Processors' Association (BMPA) legislation and technical manager Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson told FoodManufacture.co.uk that extending COOL to mixed ingredient foods would potentially restrict trade and the ability of food manufacturers to source ingredients flexibly, increasing costs and bureacracy.
She added: "Labelling should be clear and not misleading. But we can't support the extension of COOL to processed foods such as pizza and ready meals because it's not practical. Manufacturers buy pre-printed packaging in bulk and if the information required on the pack keeps changing [when firms switch between suppliers because of price, quality or availability], it becomes very expensive."
She added: "We need to reach a compromise that's pragmatic for industry."
The Parliament also asked for a full impact assessment to be carried out, she added. "But the European Commission (EC) is struggling to understand what exactly the Parliament is asking for on this."
BMPA director Stephen Rossides added: "At the meeting of the UECBV [European Livestock And Meat Trading Union] meat industry section, which I attended in Brussels, an EC official made it clear that the Commission remained opposed to compulsory COOL, and especially for multi-ingredient processed products."
The Commission will now have to draw up a revised proposal for discussion in the Council of Minsters.
Whatever position the Council reaches on a revised proposal will then go back to the European Parliament for a second reading. In turn, the Council would then consider any further changes the Parliament might make, said Nestlé's Hilary Green. "There are real differences of opinion on this."
Difficult to enforce
Even UK pig producer group BPEX, which has been instrumental in driving forward a voluntary code of practice on COOL for pork, bacon, ham and sausages, says extending it to more complex processed foods could prove problematic.
Under the voluntary code, the term ‘produced in the UK' cannot be used without qualification of the origin of the pork, while imagery such as union jack flags should only be used on pigmeat products originating in the UK.
However, extending this to more complex processed foods would "very difficult to enforce", chairman Stewart Houston told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
"We are broadly in favour of the principal of country of origin labelling [as set out in the Food Information Regulation] but perhaps if they made it so that it applied just to the meat that was first on the ingredients list [in a composite product], that might be better."