Mandatory meat origin labelling debate intensifies

By Rick Pendrous contact

- Last updated on GMT

Manufacturers argue the cost of mandatory labelling of compound foods, such as lasagne, would be prohibitive
Manufacturers argue the cost of mandatory labelling of compound foods, such as lasagne, would be prohibitive

Related tags: Origin labelling, European union, European parliament

Manufacturers have been urged to raise their voices in the fight against plans to introduce mandatory country of origin labelling (COOL) for meat used in processed food, which recently won the backing of the European Parliament but has yet to become law in the EU.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who approved the plans in February have called on the European Commission (EC) to enshrine the measures into law as a means of restoring consumer confidence following the 2013 horsemeat contamination scandal and other food fraud cases.

An EC report on the feasibility of compulsory labelling for milk as an ingredient in dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, is also expected imminently.

“Mandatory COOL is still very, very pertinent,” ​said George Lyon, a former Scottish Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament and former Member of the European Parliament, who is now a senior consultant and agrifood specialist at lobbying firm Hume Brophy.

‘Need to engage’

Speaking at a conference organised by NSF International in London last month (February 12), Lyon said: The final decisions have not been taken yet and food businesses operators need to engage at the highest level in Brussels to make sure they have some influence with the final decision formers. This is the time in the next six month period to try to influence what they do.

“For food business operators thatis a huge challenge if the Commission and ​[European] Parliament and ministers of state go down that ​[compulsory COOL] road​.”

However, consumer group Which? very much backed the introduction of mandatory COOL labelling of meat ingredients and pointed to a survey it conducted which showed widespread consumer support (87% in favour) of the measure.

“Our survey also shows that one of the main reasons people want to know about the origin, including of meat, is because they want to buy British,”​ said Which? chief policy adviser Sue Davies. “In the case of meat products, the main reason most people give is to avoid food they think may be less safe.”

‘Important issue for consumers’

Davies added: “Our research shows once again that while origin labelling is not a substitute for effective controls to ensure safety and authenticity, it is an important issue for consumers and their confidence in the food they buy.”

MEPs said COOL of compound food products, such as ready meals, should “not lead to additional burdens” ​on small food businessesand called for a further assessment of its likely impact on costs.

An impact study carried out by the EC in 2013, which suggested the additional costs would be huge. Manufacturers argued that the complexity involved in constant labelling changes to meet variations in protein sourcing would make it prohibitively expensive to introduce while doing little to improve consumer information.

The situation had been clouded by a subsequent impact study conducted by a French consumer group, which disputed these findings and concluded that the results of the EC study were “exaggerated”​ and suggested mandatory introduction of COOL presented no such barrier, said Lyon.

For meat ingredients, the Provision Trade Federation (PTF) believed that origin labelling should remain voluntary.

Although PTF supports the requirements of the Food Information for Consumers Regulation, which ensures that misleading statements of origin are not made, we consider any extension of the legislation to require origin labelling of meat as an ingredient would be burdensome to achieve, increase costs and further complicate the label,” ​said PTF director general Terry Jones.

‘Substantial increased cost’

Lyon recognised there was widespread support within EU Member States (including  the UK), particularly from consumer groups and farmer organisations, for a system of labelling that allowed consumers to differentiate between food products containing ingredients from different countries. But he was convinced it would involve “substantial increased cost for food business operators”​.

He referred to the EC's impact study, which suggested mandatory COOL would cost food business somewhere between 20% and 50% in extra costs and governments an extra 10–25% to regulate. 

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