EU debates tighter food labelling rules after horsemeat scandal


EU ministers in charge of agriculture and food safety are meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (13 February) to consider the wider implications of the recent discovery of horsemeat in beef products.




Ireland, which currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, convened the emergency meeting to consider "whatever steps may be necessary at EU level to comprehensively address this matter".

Horsemeat wrongly labelled as beef has been found in burgers, lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese in the UK, France and Sweden, triggering a public outrage.

French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll said the European Commission, which is "to report at the end of the year" on the matter, should "go faster" in light of the scandal, which erupted last month in Britain and Ireland.

Tonio Borg, the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, will take part in the meeting.

In the European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) requested a debate on the issue next Monday (18 February) in the committee on the environment, public health and food safety and said they would continue with a "campaign for honest food labelling".

Linda McAvan, a British MEP and the S&D's spokesperson on food safety said: "This scandal raises serious questions about the traceability of food, and the integrity of the meat supply chain."

But the European Commission seems to believe the horsemeat scandal is a straightforward case of fraud, which can be settled in court.

“All food in the EU is traceable so you can always work back to the source of the problem," said Commission spokesperson Frédéric Vincent, suggesting no further legislation was needed and that "operators must sort this out through legal channels.”

Sophie Auconie, a French MEP for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), backed this argument, saying that Article 2 of the the 2000 directive on food labelling already deals with the issue and simply needed to be properly enforced.

"In reality the problem does not reside in a lack of rules but in the fact that they are not respected, and therefore a lack of control of the rules in certain member states," said Auconie, who drafted a June 2012 report on the electronic tagging of bovine animals for the Parliament's environment committee.

"In the face of increasingly long supply chains within the agri-food business, it is absolutely essential to increase the means of control that authorities have over the food chains,” she said.

Short-sightedness in Council

The S&D disagrees and believes further rules are needed and criticised the member states for their short-sightedness during the negotiations on the EU's latest Food Labelling Regulation.

"If companies were forced to specify which country the meat in their lasagnes and other dishes comes from, they would have to keep a much tighter grip on their supply chain – and it would be much less likely that illegal meat of unknown origin creeps in," the political group said in a statement.

The S&D group recalled that Parliament had to accept weaker legislation on food labelling at member states' insistence two years ago. "Back in 2011 the Council agreed to the S&D request to include country-of-origin labelling for fresh lamb, pork, goat and poultry, just as we already had for beef, fish, fruit and vegetables," said British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott.

"We also pushed the Council to accept that the Commission would produce a report and possible legislation on the origin of meat in processed food within two years. So the Commission's report should be almost ready and we will call for specific legislation to avoid misleading information for customers."

"We will ask the Commission at what stage the report and legislative proposals are," Willmott said.

In the EU, the origin must always be labelled for olive oil, fish (unless it is canned or prepared), beef, fresh or frozen poultry of non-EU origin, wine, most fresh fruit and vegetables, honey and eggs.

For all other foods, origin labelling is optional.

The new EU food labelling legislation which will apply from December 2014 aims at increasing transparency about the origin of food sold on the EU market.

The European Consumers' Organisation, BEUC, recommends that origin labelling should become mandatory for all meats, milk, unprocessed foods, single-ingredient foods such as flour and sugar and ingredients that represent more than 50% of a food.

Swedish frozen-food company Findus withdrew all its beef lasagna ready meals from supermarkets after tests revealed they contained up to 100% horsemeat. 

The Food Standards Agency (FSA), a British government body, gave food companies a week to test all their beef products upon discovery of the mislabeled products.

The UK agency instructed consumers to return the Findus lasagnas and Tesco burgers as a precaution, but said there was no evidence to suggest that horsemeat itself was a food safety risk.

  • 13-15 Feb.: Ministers set to meet over horsemeat.
  • 15 Feb.: Deadline for food industry to deliver "authenticity tests" on all beef products in the UK.
  • 13 Dec. 2014: New EU food labelling legislation applies.

Subscribe to our newsletters