The final draft of the voluntary code, which also covers meat, meat products and eggs, will be published at the end of this month.
The British Retail Consortium declined to comment on specifics ahead of its publication, but told FoodManufacture.co.uk it had worked closely with DEFRA on the code, adding: “We’ve pleased that they are looking at products sold by branded manufacturers and in the hospitality sector as well as supermarket own-label products.
“But any code has to strike a balance between giving consumers information that they want and imposing impractical new burdens on industry.”
On the issue of own-label cheese, which is frequently cited as an example of why current approaches to COOL need to change, he added: “Our members have not set out to mislead consumers, they have just been obeying the law.”
This defines origin as the place in which the product underwent the ‘last substantial change’, which in the case of cheese, could mean where it was cut, packed and wrapped.
Detailed COOL is also voluntary unless it would be misleading to omit it, he added. “Where a cheese is specifically labelled as British cheese, for example, it contains British milk.”
Dairy UK: COOL should be mandatory
But a Dairy UK spokesman said COOL should be mandatory. “At the moment, if you pick up a pack of own-label cheese in a supermarket, it might be labelled with the name of a UK seller and carry a UK identification mark, but it could have been manufactured outside the UK.”
While the EU Food Information Regulation contained detailed proposals on COOL, the outcome of this legislation was both uncertain and some way off, he added, making it imperative that action was taken now. “We’re probably talking 2013 before anything happens on this, so we need to move now.”
However, other industry sources feel that DEFRA should await the outcome of EU negotiations before developing UK-based guidance on COOL.
Food Information Regulation
In the first reading of the Regulation at the European Parliament in June, MEPs voted to extend COOL from selected foods such as beef and olive oil to other single-ingredient products including meat, poultry and dairy products.
More controversially, 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, which many manufacturers argue would be impractical and hugely costly, without delivering any meaningful consumer benefit.
One industry source also told FoodManufacture.co.uk more detailed COOL might also prove counterproductive for British farmers given the amount of British dairy ingredients that are exported for processing abroad, as manufacturers in continental Europe “might prove reluctant to carry on buying British dairy ingredients if they must declare them on labels”.
The European Council has recently come up with a compromise proposal on COOL, with the Belgian Presidency hoping to reach agreement at an EU Council meeting in early December, but many firms still feel that a more detailed impact assessment of the cost and feasibility of COOL on ingredients is needed before the law is changed.