A survey published this week by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) found more than 70% of consumers would like to know the country of origin of their food, and would like this to be clearly labelled.
The results show that the majority of consumers would like to know at least which country their food was produced in, with some even wanting to know the specific region. Consumers also said they wanted labels to offer greater clarity – for example, with fresh meat, does a country of origin label refer to where the animal was reared, where it was slaughtered, or both? Most respondents assumed a product had been produced and processed in the same country, but this is not always the case.
As Shadow Rapporteur on the Food Information to Consumers Regulation, I fought hard for increased transparency to give consumers the information they clearly want when purchasing food. This included the introduction of mandatory country of origin labelling for fresh meat and fish, which will come into force in December 2014, and a commitment from the Commission that they will consider doing the same for meat and fish used in processed foods.
I would have liked the regulation to go further and include meat and fish used in processed foods, as well as dairy. However, we faced strong resistance from the right wing in the European Parliament, the vested interests of the food and drink industry and from other EU governments.
Many people may be wondering whether stricter labelling regulations could have prevented the recent scandal where burgers on sale in the UK and Ireland were found to contain horse DNA. While we don’t yet know the full facts of this case, it appears to have been a result of existing procedures not being correctly followed, and tougher labelling regulations may not have made a difference. However, it does highlight the need for information on food contents to be as accurate as possible.
It would certainly seem fair to say that better controls on food labelling – and of course, controls that are followed and enforced – should improve consumer choice and safety, by giving them more information about the food they are buying.
Of course, clearer food labelling isn’t just about the safety and quality of food. In the BEUC survey, respondents said country of origin labelling would help them make decisions about the environmental impact of their food, and other ethical concerns. Last week I visited a Co-op store ahead of Fairtrade Fortnight, which highlighted the growing desire of consumers to consider the ethical implications of the food they buy. Clear, country of origin labelling would give consumers more information to help them with this.
So I agree with the BEUC conclusions; consumers obviously want clear, detailed labelling on the food they buy and I believe we need European wide legislation to ensure this is provided. The current legislation does not go as far as I would like, but we have made huge steps towards better food labelling and we can now focus on making improvements in the future.