COMMENT - Country of origin labelling to test EU resolve in 2013
Plans to make country of origin labelling mandatory on most meats in the European Union will be hotly debated in 2013 and could easily descend into legal wrangling.
The European Commission is determined to introduce mandatory country of origin labelling (COoL) on fresh, frozen and chilled pig, poultry, sheep and goat meat within the next two years. It is committed to publishing an implementation strategy towards the end of 2013.
That may seem a long way off, but skirmishes between officials, consumer bodies and industry are already underway as all begin to consider the feasibility of such a scheme and what specific information labels might include.
Will they, for example, follow the precedent already set in unprocessed beef labelling in the EU, which requires information on the place of an animal's birth, rearing and slaughter?
Some retailers and processors appear to have struck pre-emptively, with the UK's agriculture ministry reporting a strong increase in labels that distinguish between an animal's origin and where the resultant meat was packed.
Among others, there is natural concern in the industry about the costs or implementing yet another labelling requirement for Brussels bureaucrats who appear hell-bent on transforming packs into a document akin to some full-length EU directive.
In principle, I would argue that transparency is a price worth paying. A report this month from consumer body BEUC stated that 70% of consumers surveyed in four EU countries think country of origin labelling is important, and at least half of the consumers in each country want specific country information on packs.
There is also a bizarre situation in the EU in which some foods, including olive oil, uncanned fish and eggs, require origin labelling, whereas many others do not.
That said, there are several issues around origin labelling.
Firstly, those supporting it should be careful not to overstate its benefits. While transparency may be good for consumer confidence, origin labelling will not stop everyone in the supply chain relying on a certain level of trust.
Take, for example, the recent horse meat saga in the UK; in which the problem was not a lack of origin labelling, but the presence of undeclared material in the product.
Secondly, the BEUC itself highlights the slightly irrational workings of consumer minds. Its survey clearly states that many consumers in its four focus countries - France, Austria, Poland and Sweden - like the idea of origin labelling because it helps them to gauge whether or not a food is safe, and/or good quality. Very few were concerned with ethical issues.
This suggests that consumers have fixed assumptions about which countries are more likely to produce quality, safe meat. To what extent are those assumptions based on figures?
Thirdly, and finally, there is the prospect of protracted legal wrangling over mandatory origin labelling on wider scale in the EU, depending upon the level of information that is required.
Some officials and stakeholders might have noted last year's World Trade Organisation dispute that ended in defeat for the US, at the hands of Canada and Mexico.
In short, the WTO ruled that the US policy of requiring a distinction between where an animal is reared and where it is 'processed' was too trade-restrictive to be justified in terms of improving transparency for consumers. It said the resultant use of multiple countries of origin on packs was too confusing.
A WTO appeals body later said that it recognised that US policy did provide some useful information to consumers, but the panel failed to take a view on whether current labelling was too trade-restrictive to be justified. In effect, little changed.
The ramifications of the WTO ruling could well be felt in Europe before the argument is through.
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