EU agricultural ministers have given the green light to an EU-wide animal welfare labelling system, although plans for front of pack nutrition and origin labelling have been shelved for the moment.
The approval of conclusions on an EU-wide animal welfare label, taken during the last Agrifish Council of the German presidency on Tuesday (15 December), paves the way for the European Commission to submit a proposal for a harmonised label on food produced under animal welfare standards higher than those in EU legislation.
Through the conclusions, ministers also agreed to gradually include all livestock species in the label over the entire course of their lifetime, including transport and slaughter, and ensure smooth interplay with existing labelling.
“Animal welfare has been a priority for our presidency and I am very pleased to see that it is also now becoming an EU priority for more ambitious and higher standards,” Julia Klöckner, Germany’s Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, said.
“A common EU label on animal welfare would increase credibility and transparency in our markets and would enable consumers to make more informed choices. It would also help reward producers who respect those standards.”
However, speaking before ministers, EU agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski specified that the animal welfare label scheme the EU executive is set to propose will only be voluntary.
The news that a decision had been reached on animal welfare labelling was welcomed by many campaigners, who heralded it as a step in the right direction.
“We need a label that covers the entire lifetime of animals, including factors such as transport, slaughter and all of the living conditions of the animals,” Gemma Willemsen, chair of the Eurogroup for Animals’ labelling working group, said, adding that they would gladly support the Commission in the further development of any scheme moving forward.
However, others criticised ministers’ failure to specify clear requirements for the label, warning that this calls into question whether it will be effective in raising animal welfare standards and whether countries will be able to use it.
“To be effective the proposed label needs to be mandatory and to inform consumers about all the conditions in which animal products are produced. A weak animal welfare label can lead producers to make a token effort for farmed animals,” Olga Kikou, Head of Compassion in World Farming EU, warned.
She added that a poorly defined label may mislead consumers, and may “eventually delay much-needed legislation with new rules on the conditions in which animals are farmed.”
No consensus on nutritional labelling
Ministers had less success in reaching a consensus on the thorny issue of the front of pack nutrition labelling, which has long been a cause for contention between governments.
Italy is the most prominent opponent to the proposed labelling scheme, known as the “Nutriscore”, which converts the nutritional value of products into a code consisting of five letters, from A to E, each with its own colour.
Greece and Czechia also declined to back Germany’s bid to come up with a common position, leaving the issue to roll over to the next presidency.
Italian officials argued that the text of the conclusions that Germany had put forward required a scheme that was immediately understandable and does not require prior nutritional knowledge.
“However, there are no easy solutions in this field and this approach needs to be radically revised if we are really serious about providing accurate information to guarantee consumers’ health and healthy lifestyles,” Italy’s agriculture minister Teresa Bellanova commented in reference to the colour-coded system backed by Germany.
However, Germany’s Julia Klöckner, was quick to assure that nothing went amiss during the process.
“Nothing went wrong during the talks,” Klöckner stressed during a press conference, adding that there were some “great obstacles” to overcome when it came to the trade-off between nutritional labelling and protecting regional products and that this setback was part of the “normal democratic process”.
Wojciechowski added that mandatory front of pack labelling schemes for nutrition and origin remained a priority and offered his full support.
“Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from, from which field and from how far away,” he stressed.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna and Benjamin Fox]