Updates with Commission clarification (Monday 12 Feb. 2018 – 11:30).
Country of origin food labelling will be obligatory only if the main ingredient of a particular food product comes from a different country and the producer wants to have the country of origin label, a European Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.com.
Last month, the Commission submitted a draft for public feedback of a regulation on Country of Origin Labelling.
However, several stakeholders were confused with the title of the public consultation, which referred to a provision of “voluntary” indication of origin or place of provenance of foods.
The government of Canada, for instance, commented that further clarification was needed on whether the nature of the Commission’s proposal was mandatory or voluntary. It also urged the executive to move towards a voluntary basis in order for food business operators to have the choice to add this labelling or not.
The EU spokesperson said that it was clear from the text that labelling will be mandatory for the main ingredient, if it is different from the country of origin. But the official insisted that it was only a draft proposal put out for public consultation.
Asked why the title refers to “voluntary” indication, the EU official replied that it was a “generic editorial headline”. The full title under that, it does not include the word “voluntary”.
Reacting to this article, whose initial headline was “Country of origin food labelling will be mandatory, Commission clarifies“, the EU spokesperson made it clear that the Commission’s proposal about the country of origin labelling will be voluntary, except when the origin of the main ingredient is different from the country of origin of the food product.
“Food business operators can still choose whether to label the origin of the food or not. In case they choose to specify the country of the food it will become mandatory to write/lable/specify the origin of the primary/main ingredient in case it is different from the country of the food,” the Commission official emphasised.
There is a growing trend in countries such as Italy and Greece towards more precise food labelling. Their main argument is that consumers need to know where their food comes from.
Last August, Italy decided to impose mandatory labelling on pasta and rice packaging including the primary ingredients. This means that the origin of wheat and rice’s place of cultivation should be indicated on the labels.
The food industry reacted strongly to the news, calling on the European Commission to cancel the measure which it said would disrupt the EU single market.
Greece is also mulling similar measures for milk due this year.
Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE), an organisation dealing with consumer and food safety issues, voiced concerns about the Commission’s approach to the case, saying it would confuse consumers.
The organisation says that the “voluntary spirit” of the executive’s text is contrary to the European Parliament’s repeated calls for a mandatory basis, as well as difficult to accept within the legislative framework of Food Information to Consumers Regulation.
Referring to a European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) report, which showed that EU citizens are demanding origin information on a series on foods, SAFE said the Commission’s proposal will likely disappoint consumers as it will lead to misleading information.
Another issue is the provision for the primary ingredients of a food product.
The EU executive says that the country of origin or the place of provenance of a primary ingredient which is not the same as the given country of origin or the place of provenance of the food shall be described as “EU”, “non-EU” or “EU and non-EU”.
However, SAFE says the distinction between “EU” and “non-EU” is sufficient, contending that “EU and non-EU” is a questionable definition if exact proportions of the EU and non-EU parts of the product are not shown.
Floriana Cimmarusti, SAFE secretary-general, also raised concerns about the proposal.
“Leaving the possibility to producers to declare that ‘this ingredient does not originate from the country identified as the Country-of-Origin of the food’, without specifying the actual origin of said ingredient, could create more confusion for consumers,” Cimmarusti told EURACTIV.com.
“However, the proposed implementing regulation leaves it for operators to decide on the geographical level of precision of the primary ingredient’s origin, with the faculty to prevent the disclosure of such provenance allowing partial and misleading information,” she added.
FoodDrinkEurope, which represents EU food and drink manufacturers, told EURACTIV that the origin of the primary ingredient at the member state level or third country can be the case but not always.
“It’s not always practicable and the information can only be given at a higher geographical level (“EU”, “non-EU”, “EU and non-EU”),” FoodDrinkEurope said.
“Indeed, for some foods (e.g. bulk ingredients which are traded worldwide and processed through continuous production processes) the origin of the primary ingredient necessarily changes over time, based on factors such as market availability, seasonality, quality, price, etc. As they depend on external factors, those changes in the sourcing practices cannot be planned in advance,” it said.
It added that raw materials from different origins are normally mixed together so that it would be extremely challenging to segregate these based on their origin/provenance.
“In those conditions, indicating the exact proportion of primary ingredients which comes from a specific origin would not be practically feasible, and beyond the means of most companies (particularly SMEs),” FoodDrinkEurope noted.
“Lacking this possibility, operators would be obliged to use the statement foreseen by the Implementing Regulation (“(name of the primary ingredient) do/does not originate from (the country of origin or the place of provenance of the food)” or any similar wording likely to have the same meaning for the consumer”), which is less informative for consumers.”