French dairy farmers sour after milk origin labelling scrapped

This decision was "deeply regretted" by the French federation of milk producers (FNPL), the FNSEA and the Young Farmers, who issued a joint statement on 12 March. [Sergey Ryzhov/Shutterstock]

A decision by France’s top court to annul the obligation to label the origin of milk has provoked outrage in France. Dairy farmers and politicians are particularly sour about the move, calling it an “unacceptable step backwards.” EURACTIV France reports.

The French milk producers have called the recent ruling by the Council of State an “unacceptable step backwards” and a “decision that goes against the grain of history.”

Based on an opinion of the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the Council of State ruled in favour of French milk giant Lactalis on 10 March, saying it was illegal to impose geographical labelling of milk in the absence of a proven link between its origin and properties.

This labelling has been tested in France since January 2017. However, in 2020, the CJEU ruled that member states could impose such labelling in the name of consumer protection – provided that “the majority of consumers attach significant importance to that information” and that there is “a proven link between certain properties of a foodstuff and its origin”, according to the Council of State’s website.

However, since no link could be demonstrated in this case, the judges ruled in favour of cancelling compulsory labelling.

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A ‘very bad signal’ for producers

This decision was “deeply regretted” by the French federation of milk producers (FNPL), the FNSEA and the Young Farmers’ Association, which issued a joint statement on 12 March denouncing “the irresponsible attitude of an economic player that goes against the recognition of the work of French dairy farmers.”

Lactalis defended its approach, which it said was “motivated by the desire not to undermine the free movement of goods through a proliferation of origin decrees in Europe.” For the group, it would be a matter of “preserving exports of French dairy products, as France exports 50% of its milk production” and thus “sustain the entire French dairy industry.”

However, milk producers bemoaned as a “very bad signal” the calling into question of the rule, which they said “creates value for the French farm and allows consumers to be informed about the origin of the milk and the traceability of what they consume.”

The decision “undermines the long-standing efforts made by French farmers to meet the expectations of citizens, which should enable the farming profession to earn a decent living,” they added.

It is “incomprehensible” why the company had “gone through with the process,” FNPL Secretary General Daniel Perrin told EURACTIV.

The move raised many more eyebrows as the group assured that it “indicates the origin of the products on all its brand packaging” and that “this indication will remain.” However, according to Perrin, the company just “doesn’t want to feel obliged” to label its products.

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‘Difficult to understand’ Lactalis’ move

In an open letter addressed to the chairman of the Lactalis group on Wednesday (24 March), French MEP and member of the European Parliament’s agriculture and rural development committee, Jérémy Decerle (Renew Europe), said the group’s initiative and the ensuing court decision was “difficult … to understand and accept.”

The MEP said the move went “against the grain of societal demands and the interests of farmers.” As a leading industry player, Lactalis should “be able to listen to these expectations” and “set an example for other operators in the sector,” he added.

“If some, even smaller than you, have found the resources to implement this origin labelling, and even to turn it into a competitive advantage, it must not be completely impossible for you,” said the French MEP.

Moreover, Decerle charged that Lactalis had only pointed out that mandatory labelling had represented a cost to them once the court decision had been made public.

Decerle called on Lactalis to change its approach and “push for the construction of a harmonised and relevant regulation on origin labelling.”

“We cannot have a food policy at European level if we do not harmonise things and if we are not consistent and ambitious on the subject,” the MEP told EURACTIV.

While the Council of State’s decision puts the brakes on France’s efforts, Decerle welcomed the opportunity to reopen the discussion on geographical labelling at EU level. In the framework of the European strategy Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, “windows of opportunity” would now exist to continue this momentum.

Perrin meanwhile said he hopes the agriculture and food minister would “find a legal response” to the Council of State’s decision.

“We can feel the political will to readdress the balance of power” between producers, manufacturers and distributors, Perrin said.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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