Confusion about origin and added water labelling

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

FIC 'raises complex questions about determining which is the main ingredient'
FIC 'raises complex questions about determining which is the main ingredient'

Related tags Origin labelling European union European commission Dominic watkins

EU legislation designed to avoid consumers being mislead about the country of origin of ingredients contained in compound foods they purchase is likely to cause headaches for food manufacturers, according to a legal expert.

The EU’s Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIC) includes a new requirement for origin labelling where a product is voluntarily labelled with a declaration of the origin of the food but the origin of the main ingredients is different.

An implementing Act is required before this comes into force and food manufacturers are waiting to hear from the European Commission (EC) when this likely to happen.

However, Dominic Watkins, a partner and head of the food group with law firm DWF, reports that this issue is far more complex than it might at first appear.

“The general provisions about origin misleading consumers are already in force and broadly reflect what the law was previously,”​ said Watkins. “This provision does require an implementing Act in order to come into force, which will inevitably take time.”

Watkins added: “For this particular obligation, and as is often the case, the intent of the section, does not match the consequence. 

‘Complex questions’

“In practical terms it raises complex questions about determining which is the main ingredient – which would be simple for single ingredient foods, but when just using the ingredients list for guidance very often the first ingredient in the list (and by definition the ingredient present in largest amount) is not necessarily the ingredient which characterises the food.”

The provision itself is vague and required clarity in guidance or the implementing Act in order for industry to properly react, he noted.

Apparently, there are also moves by the European Parliament to encourage the EC to bring forward legislative proposals for the origin labelling of dairy products and meat when it is used as an ingredient. A response from the EC is awaited on these moves.

“Under FIC, the EU is required to take certain actions in these areas and has previously adopted reports in both of these areas,”​ said Watkins.

“Country of origin labelling is hugely contentious across the EU in particular in these two areas ​[dairy and meat] as there are some very significant practical issues to be overcome, not least the reluctance from certain parts of the EU. 

“While the EU has adopted new rules for some types of meat I think that these areas are more challenging to complete.”

Labelling of added water

Meanwhile, rules within FIC governing the labelling of added water in meat products is also causing problems for meat processors and questions have been raised about how this requirement is interpreted.

Annex V1 Part A (6) of FIC states that where meat products and meat preparations have the appearance of a cut, joint, slice, portion or carcass of meat, “the name of the food shall include an indication of the presence of added water if the added water makes up more than 5% of the weight of the finished product”​.

The main problem revolves around interpretation of exemptions to these rules when additional water is added for “technological reasons” ​during the manufacturing process.

For example, in some products, such as bacon, brine (water and salt) is required to distribute salt homogeneously. In these cases the water content could be more than 5%, according to meat processors. The question remains, would this be considered a valid ‘technological reason’ for not requiring an added water declaration?

The advice from the Provision Trade Federation and British Meat Processors Association is that where the level of added water in bacon exceeds 5%, this should be indicated in the legal name of the food as ‘bacon with added water’, although this needn’t be on front-of-pack.

No clarity without guidance

Watkins said that without guidance there was no clarity and therefore it remained for businesses to determine exactly what was and was not justified. 

“In the cases of the distribution of curing salts this appears to be more closely related to being a processing aid rather than part of the food,”​ said Watkins. “This is just one of a vast number of areas where ​[FIC’s] drafting has left confusion as to what exactly is required and that increases cost of compliance for business unnecessarily.

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