BEUC: Food labelling should include country of origin for meat

Pauline Constant

Pauline Constant, BEUC's communications officer for food and health issues [Photo provided by BEUC]

Consumer confidence in food is at low levels. Displaying origin information can boost transparency and help reverse the tide, says Pauline Constant.

Pauline Constant is communications officer for food and health issues at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). She spoke to EURACTIV’s Henriette Jacobsen.

What is wrong with the current food labelling legislation in the EU?

Today, when you go meat shopping in the EU, you can only know where fresh beef comes from. This is because Country of Origin Labelling (‘COOL’) is only compulsory for this type of meat, which must display the animal’s country of birth, rearing and slaughter.

As of April 2015, fresh pig, poultry, sheep and goat meat will also have to indicate the animal’s country of rearing and slaughter. Unfortunately birthplace labelling was scrapped for those types of meat. And when it comes to processed foods, you don’t have the slightest clue of the animal’s whereabouts. Only a handful of manufacturers voluntarily display this information. Consumers’ confidence in their food is at low levels and displaying origin information can boost transparency and help reverse the tide.

Why is it important for BEUC to have meat origin labelling in the EU?

We are the consumers’ voice in the EU. And consumers are clear: according to the European Commission’s own report published in December 2013, 90% of them want to know where their meat comes from. By this we mean, all the stages from the animal’s birth on a farm to the country where it is slaughtered.

BEUC’s own research from July 2012 across several EU countries found 70% of consumers expressed deep interest in knowing where their food comes from. The figure even hiked to 90% when it came to meat, which is consistent with the Commission’s findings. As our survey was published only a few weeks before the horsemeat scandal broke in early 2013, we can assume this interest is even stronger now.

You are launching a social media campaign, what is it about?

With the help of our members from 14 countries, we have created an animated cartoon taking the viewer on a pig’s journey from farm to fork. It clearly shows the origin information goes through the mincer during meat processing. Besides sharing this slideshow, consumers can support us by posting meat products with origin labels they snapped in supermarkets.

We will use the picture gallery to prove to EU decision-makers that COOL on processed meat is possible and should be the norm. We expect the picture hunt to be easier in some countries than in others, whereas we believe all EU consumers should be able to enjoy the same level of information on the meat they buy and eat. With our campaign, we aim to have the future Food & Health EU Commissioner make COOL for processed meat a priority.

How high do you want to see meat origin labelling on the next Commission and Parliament priority list?

Following the publication of the Commission’s report in December 2013, the ball is now in the Council’s and European Parliament’s court. We look to MEPs and member states to urge the future food & health Commissioner to come forward with legislative proposals making COOL on processed meat compulsory. The upcoming hearings of the Commissioners-designate will also be the opportunity for MEPs to voice their priorities for the next 5 years and grill the future Commissioner on those.

Many EU member states are still in a recession while others are see only limited growth. Is it the right time to pass on more regulatory burdens on the industry?

A number of food makers already display such information, which shows it is far from being impossible. Let’s see it the other way around. Being transparent by saying where the meat comes from can benefit not only consumers but also the food industry. One should keep in mind the cost of lost consumer confidence. The sales of frozen ready meals dropped in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal, costing industry a lot of money. A more transparent meat supply chain might be the price to pay to restore consumer trust.

And this price should not be as high as some have claimed. In a study released last year, our French member UFC-Que Choisir found out that labelling beef’s origin on a pack of frozen lasagne would only cost €0.015 more (1.5 cent). This is far from representing a huge burden.

How do you think the ongoing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations will have an impact on this EU legislation? 

The US does have mandatory country of origin labelling for all types of fresh meat, including the country of birth, rearing and slaughter. By contrast, in the EU, for fresh meat from pig, poultry, sheep and goat, only the country of rearing and slaughter will have to be labelled.

Should the EU move to adopt compulsory COOL for processed meat, we could expect some resistance from industry on both sides of the Atlantic. But at the same time, consumers in the EU and the US share similar expectations for a more transparent food chain. Therefore the potential impact of TTIP on any contemplated new EU origin labelling rules for processed meat will essentially depend on whose interests are being put first: those of businesses, or those of consumers?

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