Agriculture ministers from EU countries have prompted the European Commission to prioritise products of animal origin if a mandatory indication of food origin is going to be included in the upcoming proposal for EU-wide food labelling.
Since the EU executive is expected to put forward a proposal for a harmonised front-of-pack labelling scheme in the context of its Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), member states aimed to send a clear message to the Commission by agreeing on a joint position before the end of the year.
When Germany took over the rotating EU presidency in July, agriculture minister Julia Klöckner made clear that labelling was high on the agenda.
However, Italy, Greece and Czechia refused to back Germany’s last-ditch attempt to have a joint Council conclusion on nutritional and origin labelling at the last gathering of EU agriculture ministers under the German presidency held on 15-16 December.
In their separate opinion, attached to the final document, the three dissenting countries called in question only the nutritional labelling part, which has long been a bone of contention among governments.
Although consensus on a harmonised food labelling framework has not been reached yet, ministers have made good progress regarding the proposal for mandatory food origin labelling, as the final conclusions signed off by the German presidency has shown.
The document reads that “in the case of an extension of the mandatory indication of origin or provenance to certain products, milk, milk used as an ingredient in dairy products, meat, and meat used as an ingredient should be seen as first priorities.”
Several member states have recently introduced national measures to specify the origin of certain categories of food such as milk or some main ingredients of food products.
Italy, for instance, has already adopted some national schemes to specify the origin of tomatoes used in tomato sauce and durum wheat in pasta.
With its final declaration, the German presidency has given a precise spin to the food origin labelling debate, informing the European Commission that EU countries are willing to test origin food labelling starting with products such as beef, pork and poultry meat.
The endorsement for origin labelling for animal foodstuff comes after a Commission study published in November showed that mandatory indication on the country origin for certain meat does not have an impact on trade within the EU’s single market.
The study evaluated the effectiveness of the EU rules adopted in 2013 on mandatory indication of origin labelling for certain species of meat, but a broader impact assessment by the Commission is expected in early 2021.
This much-awaited document will consider the impact an extension of mandatory origin labelling might have on food business operators, and will have a major impact on the Commission’s proposal for the EU-wide labelling scheme.
So far the Commission has lent its support to the idea of having such a mandatory framework at the EU level, as any national attempt to regulate on the matter runs the risk of fragmenting the single market.
National schemes for origin labelling for meat products are in force mostly on a voluntary basis.
In France, for instance, the denomination volaille française, French poultry, is based on an interbranch agreement supported by the national poultry producers association, while in Denmark, five poultry operators have been labelling their products as Dansk Kylling, Danish chicken, since 2019.
Likewise, Spain and Greece have both launched initiatives to identify meat products coming from certain specific regions.
But according to food operators, the absence of any requirement to provide information about the country of origin for meat is a serious problem, in particular considering non-EU products entering the common market.
Speaking at a recent EURACTIV event, the secretary-general of the poultry lobby, Birthe Steenberg, said that 25% of the poultry breast meat in the EU is imported from third countries and goes into the foodservice industry, so it ends up in canteens or in processed products,
Since the F2F strategy requires EU livestock farmers to have higher sustainable standards, this could become an additional burden on the European poultry sector, which may then be undercut by cheaper imports of chicken that does not meet the standards of animal welfare and sustainability found in the EU.
According to the EU’s agriculture Commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, information on origin and provenance to the food is important for consumers’ choice too.
In its final conclusion, the German presidency invited the Commission to take into account also consumer benefits and behaviour in drafting its proposal.
“But the question is rather: one harmonised system of this kind in the whole EU or one EU label that coexists with other national systems of labelling?” Wojciechowski explained in a press conference after the December Agrifish EU Council.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]