Parliament divided over meat labels

The horse meat scandal of 2012-2013 raised questions over the traceability of food. [Kim Hill/Flickr]

Most of the parties in the European Parliament want to see stricter labeling of the meat used in ready meals, but the implementation costs remain uncertain. EURACTIV France reports

MEPs debated reforms to European food disclosure standards on Monday, to address the fact that ready-made meals like lasagnas, pizzas or moussaka often do not specify the origins of the meat they contain. While fresh meat is easily traceable, the same is not always true of processed meat, which accounts for between 30% and 50% of EU consumption.

The European Parliament Environment Committee voted in favour of reforming food labeling in January this year, but the issue failed to find consensus at the Strasbourg plenary. The largest group in Parliament, the European People’s Party, dismissed the debate as “absurd”.

>> Read: MEPs call for country of origin labelling of meat in processed foods

“Consumers expect stricter standards! So we are requesting more information on the main obstacle to the introduction of this measure; namely, the additional cost incurred as a result of this labeling,” said the Italian Giovanni Lavia.

According to the Commission, which published a report on the subject in 2013, the introduction of stricter traceability requirements could be hugely expensive, costing up to 25% of the cost of the product, or even 50% for some products. This information is contested by the French organisation UFC Que Choisir, which carried out its own study in 2013.

But Commissioner Jyrki Katainen said the French study was flawed and lacking in detail, and that the price of labeling depends heavily on the type of meat in question. He added that the labeling of beef is cheaper in France, thanks to the high volumes processed in the country.

The UFC Que Choisir study, carried out at the height of the horse meat scandal in 2013, focused entirely on beef, and concluded that traceability labeling would increase costs by only 0.67%.

“There is a gap between consumer expectations on the source of meat and the fact that they are not prepared to pay higher prices,” the Commissioner observed. 90% of Europeans would like to know where their meat comes from.

Clarity versus cost

The MEP Renate Sommer, from the EPP, believes the reopening of the labeling debate was pointless. She said “Consumers do not want higher prices; yet costs will clearly rise! We want to fight this bureaucracy.”

“This debate has nothing to do with the horse meat scandal. It is absurd to resurrect the subject,” she added.

The Commissioner promised that the demands of the consumer would be taken into account, no matter what.

The uncertainty surrounding the question of a possible inflation of prices has also provoked MEPs into action. “Is it a question of 1 cent per kilo, or could it be up to 50%, as the Commission says? In Finland, we have a food industry that labels products. It is obviously profitable because the consumers buy more of the products whose origins they can trace,” said Finish MEP Anneli Jaatteenmaki.

Lobbies and TTIP under fire

Glenis Willmott, a British MEP from the S&D group, believes the Commission report was entirely based on industry information. “Consumer groups are at a disadvantage because they cannot stand up to the strength of the lobbies!” she said.

“Consumers’ associations do not agree with these conclusions! Consumers’ wishes must be taken into account,” the MEP added. Others said that country of origin labeling would become even more important if the TTIP negotiations lead to a free-trade deal with the Americans.

The European Parliament will vote on a non-binding resolution on Wednesday 11 February, calling on the Commission to come up with new legislative proposals on food labeling. 

"We transport animals in scandalous conditions simply because a pig must be slaughtered in Parma to make Parma ham; or because it is cheaper to slaughter chickens in Poland. A simple label indicating whether the meat comes from the EU or not, would stop this," said Anja Hazekamp, of the Party for the Animals, a member of the GUE/NGL group. 

On 17 December 2013, the European Commission presented a report to the Parliament and the Council on the probable consequences of a law forcing producers to indicate the country of origin or the source of the meat used in ready-made meals.

MEPs estimate that between 30% and 50% of the meat produced in European countries is processed into mince or other meat-based products. 

Subscribe to our newsletters