Consumer organisations expose misleading meat labelling


Monique Goyens and Camille Perrin [Henriette Jacobsen]

Test samples by consumer organisations in seven EU countries show that meat-based food labels are often misleading to consumers.

Some of the ways meat producers misinform consumers include the use of illegal food additives, incomplete information about the percentage of meat in the product, as well as added water, confusing product names, and fraudulent use of other species, such as turkey kebab sold as veal.

The mislabelled meat came from both bigger food producers in Europe, as well as SMEs.

The findings followed tests carried out on meat products between April 2014 and August 2015 in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal. The results were presented in a report, Close-up on the meat we eat, consumers want honest labels, in Brussels on Wednesday (4 November).

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), which helped coordinate the study, stressed that misinformation can have severe health consequences. 

“In Portugal, our member organisation proved that sulphites, a preservative which is not permitted for use in fresh meat according to EU law, was found in 23 out of 26 samples in different supermarkets and outlets in different regions,” said Camille Perrin, Food Policy Officer at BEUC. 

“Sulphites can make meat look fresher than it is, because it helps maintain the red colour of the meat, but it’s also a non-food allergen. It can cause severe reactions in consumers, ranging from headaches to asthma. The tests also found that the amount of sulphites in some cases was 400 times higher than the labelling threshold,” Perrin continued.

Due to grey areas in the EU’s food labelling laws, member states are interpreting the use of additives in foods differently in some products, she said.

“This has created quite a lot of issues, and now the Commission has had to legalise some illegal additives to ensure that companies were able to continue use additives which they were not even supposed to use in their products,” Perrin said.

>>Read: One year after ‘horsegate’ nothing has changed, consumer group says

Checks and expections

In 2013, the Europe-wide horse meat scandal, in which horse meat was being passed off as beef in processed meat products, ended up on the top of the Commission’s agenda.

New initiatives to prevent fraud included increased testing of meat samples, more unannounced controls in meat processing plants, and heavier fines for fraudsters as well as the establishment of a ‘Food Fraud Network’ and an IT alert tool. But a proposal for origin labelling of fresh meat was rejected by a Parliament committee. 

Monique Goyens, BEUC’s Director General, said that the “protection of consumers really depends on the resources that member states have and use in carrying out checks and inspections”.

BEUC is now calling for more frequent checks to ensure that labels for meat-based foods are complete, including the amounts of food additives and water used. It also calls for a clarification of legal definitions for meat products in order to remove grey areas and misinterpretations.

The scandal of horse meat in products labelled as beef spread across Europe in early 2013, prompting product withdrawals, consumer concerns and government investigations into the continent's complex food-processing chains.

The scandal broke when Swedish frozen-food company Findus withdrew all its beef lasagna ready meals from supermarkets after tests revealed they contained up to 100% horsemeat.

The fraud exposed the complex nature of the globalised food supply chain. The evidence gathered did not point to a food safety or public health issue, but rather an issue of fraudulent labelling motivated by the prospect of gain.

Following the scandal, the European Union passed new food labelling rules to ensure consumers receive clearer and more accurate information about what they buy and eat. Fresh meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry will need to carry a mandatory origin label, with a font size of at least 1.2 milimetres.

>> Read: New EU-wide food labelling rules begin to apply

The European Commission also promised enhanced controls and penalties on fraudsters to ensure genuine food authenticity.

The Commission listed its commitments in an Action Plan, published in March 2013. The plan included increased testing of meat samples, more unannounced controls in meat processing plants and heavier fines for fraudsters, as well as the establishment of a ‘Food Fraud Network’ and IT alert tool.

>> Watch the video: EU to impose bigger fines for food fraud after horsemeat scandal

  • 18 November : Antibiotics Day.
  • February 2016: The Parliament's AGRI and ENVI committees vote on the use of antibiotics in healthy livestock.

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