The origin country of products is a key criteria for EU consumers when buying food, says a new survey by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). The organisation recommends an update of EU food labelling legislation.
It's not easy for EU consumers to find out where their food comes from as origin information remains absent from many foods sold in European markets.
When manufacturers do declare the origin on a voluntary basis, writing "made in" or "product of", it's often also impossible to figure out if a product was only processed, transformed or farmed in the given country.
Recent examples have included sausages made from Danish pork manufactured in the UK and labelled as a "British" product.
Flags, pictures and symbols are also being used on food labels to suggest a different origin, such as Greek fonts indicating that a feta-like cheese made in Germany has a Greek origin.
In a new BEUC member research, 70% of the respondents said the origin is an important factor when buying food.
"Consumers want more and more to know where their food comes from, but the state of play is quite confusing at the moment," Ruth Veale, head of BEUC's Food, Health, Environment and Safety Department, told a news briefing Thursday (24 January).
Origin relating to quality and safety
The survey also found that a clear majority of shoppers want to know the specific country their food comes from.
BEUC's survey was commissioned in July 2012 in Austria, France, Poland and Sweden and involved a representative sample of the national population.
"Most consumers are interested in the origin because they relate this to the quality and the safety of the food," said Camille Perrin, food policy officer at BEUC, adding that most respondents also said they wish to support local farming, economy or companies.
"To many consumers, to just know whether a product comes from the EU or not, is not sufficient enough. In some countries like France and Austria, the consumers would like to know even the specific region where the food comes from," Perrin said.
Meat is the product on which most consumers said they wanted to know the country origin.
There's also a strong interest in knowing the origin country of fruit and vegetables, fish, milk and diary products where 70-90% of the consumers want to see origin labelling.
Legislation ready for an update
In the EU, the origin must always be labelled for olive oil, fish (unless it's canned or prepared), beef, fresh or frozen poultry of non-EU origin, wine, most fresh fruit and vegetables, honey and eggs.
For all other foods, origin labelling is only voluntary.
The new EU food labelling legislation which will apply from December 2014 aims at increasing transparency about the origin of food sold on the EU market.
Veale said a lot of surveys and reports are currently coming out of Brussels regarding food labelling, so BEUC's survey is "timely".
"This is why BEUC wanted to conduct this survey; to really impose the consumer perspective into these reports. There's a lot yet to be decided, but it should be decided by the end of this year, so this is why we found that the time is perfect to really get a snapshot of what consumers really want," she said.
BEUC recommends that origin labelling should become mandatory for all meats, milk, unprocessed foods, single-ingredient foods such as flour and sugar and ingredients that represent more than 50% of a food.
Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, said: "In 2013, the EU will decide on crucial rules on origin labelling. Our survey clearly shows that this info ranks high when people buy food. Making origin labelling meaningful and easy to find should be legislators' yardstick.
"Producers go to great lengths to make consumers believe their food has a special regional character. German feta cheese promoted in Greek font or Chinese tomato sauce with Italian flags are poor marketing tricks to mislead shoppers. Such dishonest practices are unacceptable and should be stopped."
- 13 Dec. 2014: New EU food labelling legislation applies.