Political pressure is mounting for the mandatory country of origin labelling of meat and milk products within processed foods such as ready meals.
As Food Manufacture went to press, the Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) Bill a Private Members' Bill sponsored by Richard Bacon, conservative MP for South Norfolk was scheduled to receive its Second Reading in the House of Commons. However, it is unlikely to pass into law given question marks over the legality of the UK legislating unilaterally of the EU over food labelling.
Bacon's Bill seeks to amend the 1996 Food Labelling Regulations, extending the information on country of origin of food for consumers. Its supporters believe it would provide much needed help for UK producers particularly hard-pressed pig farmers, who are once again suffering heavy losses against cheap imports.
UK pig farmers are suffering particularly from very high feed costs (which now represent around 77% of their costs up by almost one-third since 2007). In addition, they face higher animal welfare standards, which overseas competitors in the EU do not yet have to comply with. It is estimated that 70% of pork imported into the UK is produced under standards that would be illegal here.
The Bill calls for no meat product to be labelled 'British' unless the animal from which the meat was derived was born, reared and slaughtered in the UK.
It also calls for the rules to apply to meat components of foods where the meat ingredient makes up at least 10% of the product by weight.
Currently, the rules allow for foods to be labelled 'British' if they have been processed for example, into sausages in the UK, even though the pork was sourced elsewhere.
Meanwhile, changes are being sought to the provisions for Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) contained in the EU's Food Information Regulation (FIR), which is currently being debated in Europe.
Following an "unambiguous call" by MEPs for an extension of COOL to cover mandatory labelling of basic primary foodstuffs, the European Council of ministers has agreed to extend it to pork, lamb and poultry meat.
According to Kathy Roussel, the Brussel-based EU policy adviser for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the Council is also considering the possible extension of COOL to products, such as milk and meat used as ingredients.
Although Dr Renate Sommer, MEP, the rapporteur responsible for steering the FIR through the European Parliament has insisted on an 'impact assessment' before setting any new rules on the origin labelling of meat, a number of MEPs want compulsory origin labelling extended to processed food.
Roussel pointed out that MEPs' views regarding an extension to processed foods were divergent. "We are still at a very early stage of discussions, so it is difficult to know where we're going," she commented.
In a debate in the UK parliament last month secured by Richard Bacon in advance of the Second Reading of his Bill, there was considerable support for pig farmers expressed by MPs for a mandatory labelling regime. Processors and retailers came in for particular flak from MPs for exploiting the situation.
"There is no doubt that supermarkets in general seem to be using their part of the supply chain to insulate themselves against the increasing costs of the production of pork and other pigmeat product, such as bacon, ham and sausages," said Bacon.