The European Commission should come up with legislative proposals for mandatory country origin labelling of certain foods, such as milk, dairy and meat products, MEPs said in a new resolution on Thursday (12 May).
Ever since the horsemeat scandal three years ago, which revealed that a lack of transparency in the food chain enabled producers to replace beef with horsemeat in certain products, the European Parliament and the Commission have debated how to improve food labelling.
In several non-binding resolutions, Parliament told the executive to get back to the drawing board, and on Thursday, in Strasbourg, a majority of MEPs (422 votes to 159, with 68 abstentions) reiterated that country of origin labelling has to be made mandatory for all kinds of dairy and meat products, in order to boost consumer confidence in food products.
They also said that the European Commission should consider extending the legislation to cover single-ingredient foods, or those with one main ingredient. The legislators emphasised that they don’t expect adding extra labelling to products would be a major cost for food producers.
EU ministers in charge of agriculture and food safety are meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (13 February) to consider the wider implications of the recent discovery of horsemeat in beef products.
But FoodDrinkEurope, which represents Europe’s food and drink industry at EU level in Brussels, said in a statement that all kinds of companies across Europe would be negatively affected by new labelling rules.
“Mandatory origin labelling would ultimately have a negative impact on the competitiveness of European companies,” the industry representative stated.
“Forcing companies to provide the country of origin of ingredients in processed foods would require production lines and batches to be differentiated according to country; this would reduce the flexibility to buy from different sources, would make supply chains less efficient, make production more costly and create more food waste,” FoodDrinkEurope added.
“Unrealistic” and “populist”
The industry’s concerns were backed by the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, which called the resolution “unrealistic” and “populist”.
“The price pressure on farmers and SMEs would increase, although consumers are neither willing to accept higher food prices nor interested in country-of-origin labelling,” said Renate Sommer, who is in charge of the resolution on behalf of the EPP group.
“The European Commission conducted an impact assessment on mandatory origin-labelling for milk, milk products and meats with low market shares. The result was that mandatory origin labelling would increase food prices but consumer interest in origin labelling was low compared to other factors,” Sommer continued.
Meanwhile, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) applauded the legislature for listening to the 80% of consumers who have expressed interest in knowing where their food comes from.
“We now count on the Commission to take heed of today’s vote and finally endorse mandatory origin labels on those types of food,” said Ilaria Passarani, who is head of the Food and Health Department at BEUC.
Recent years have seen a growing interest on the part of European consumers to know the origin of the food they buy.
In response, some industry operators have recognised the marketing opportunity this provides and communicate on the origin of their products.
Indications such as "made in", "product of", etc. are multiplying on food labels as well as flags, symbols or pictures which can indirectly imply or suggest a particular food's origin.
However, with the exception of a limited number of foods such as fruit and vegetables, beef, fish or eggs, for which specific pieces of EU legislation already provide for mandatory origin labelling, origin information remains absent from many foods sold on the EU market.
- 13 December: Rules on mandatory nutrition information on processed foods enter into force in the EU.