What makes Country of Origin Food Labelling so complicated?

Thursday 01 March 2018

On February 1st 2018, the public consultation launched by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), concerning the draft application of Article 26(3) of the ‘Food Information to Consumers’ (FIC) regulation 1169/2011, came to an end. The regulation lays the conditions under which labelling of the ‘origin of the primary ingredient of a food where different to that given for that food’ is mandatory[1]. With over 150 feedbacks from around the world and several confused stakeholders[2], food labelling is and remains a complex matter which requires close attention.

In February 2006, the European Commission (EC) published a consultative document entitled: “Labelling: competitiveness, consumer information and better regulation for the EU”[3]. Its objectives were to develop a coherent basis and framework for a future harmonized legislation on general food labelling at the EU level. Later, in January 2008, the EC proposed the FIC regulation which was eventually adopted in 2011, and entered into force in December 2014. With that document, the EC compelled food industries to include the country of origin of certain food products on labels. Since then, country of origin labelling (COOL) is mandatory for fresh, chilled and frozen pork, sheep and goat meat, honey, fruits and vegetables, unprocessed fish, beef, olive oil, wine, eggs, and imported poultry, and also in cases where failure to indicate the country of origin might mislead the consumer[4].

Additionally, article 26(5) of the regulation required the Commission to submit reports on the possible extension of these mandatory COOL measures on other foods such as milk and dairy products, other types of meat etc. By 2015, three reports had been published by the EC which found that introducing other mandatory COOL would not be suitable since it would lead to high production costs that would eventually be passed on to the consumers[5][6][7]. Therefore, voluntary COOL would be preferable for these other foods, hence the recent consultation, with the next step being the submission of the final draft from the Commission by the end of the second quarter of 2018[8].

However, MEPs requested the EC to further investigate the impact of higher prices on consumption and the implementation of mandatory COOL on these other foods[9], but no studies were carried out. Furthermore, after several scandals (such as the Findus horsemeat) along with other food frauds[10], Member States decided to take matters into their own hands. In fact, article 39 of the FIC regulation allows Member States to implement their own national mandatory COOL measures under certain conditions. France was the first country to adopt their own measures on milk, milk used in dairy products, and meat used as an ingredient in food. The Commission approved these measures as a two-year trial scheme in 2015, also requiring France to report back, once the trial is over, in order to assess whether consumers were ready to pay more for certain products[11].

Since then, a multitude of Member States have expressed their desire to implement similar measures, with Italy having already implemented its own mandatory measures on wheat and milk[12][13], and Portugal[14] having EC approval for adopting measures on milk and dairy products. Other countries such as Greece and Finland also notified the EC and are waiting for the go-ahead for similar products[15].

COOL measures are and remain a contentious subject. From the outset, Member States were not able to agree on the harmonization of these criteria for a large part of the foods, especially milk and dairy products. In addition, the food industry has expressed their opposition to these national measures. For example, FoodDrinkEurope[16] has stated that unilateral measures threaten the single market and would cause unfair competition[17], while the European Dairy Association[18] (EDA) has declared that such measures would have a negative impact on international trade and that mandatory COOL "is not feasible for dairy products"[19]. It is also interesting to note that contrary to the European food industry, farmers’ representatives support these measures[20].

Thus, while on the one hand a large part of the European food industry is campaigning to raise awareness on the negative effects of such measures, Member States are 'queuing' at the Commission to put them in place, in most cases for milk and dairy products. Let's not also forget consumers who, according to extensive studies, now increasingly wish to know where the products they buy come from[21]. In the end, there is a real issue between the European food industry, which wants to defend the principles of the internal market and competitiveness, and farmers’ representatives who promote the benefits of local and national consumption.

The first trial in France started on the 1st of January 2016 and will end in December 2018, after which the country will have to report back its findings to the EC and to the other Member States. With that feedback, and the ones that will follow, it will be interesting to examine the actual effect of mandatory COOL measures on food products that are not yet in the framework of the FIC regulation, and possible future developments at the EU-level. It will then be possible to truly assess if consumers are ready to pay more for certain local or national products or if they would rather go with the cheapest options.




[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2018-34773_en

[2] https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/country-of-origin-food-labelling-will-be-mandatory-commission-clarifies/

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/labelling-nutrition_better-reg_competitiveness-consumer-info_en.pdf

[4] http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32011R1169&from=EN (article 31/32)

[5] https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/labelling_legislation_com_2013-755_en.pdf

[6] https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/labelling_legislation_com-2015-204-f1_en.pdf

[7] https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/sites/agriculture/files/milk/origin-labelling/com-2015-205_en.pdf

[8] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getAllAnswers.do?reference=E-2017-007616&language=EN

[9] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20150120IPR10802/food-safety-meps-call-for-country-of-origin-labelling-of-meat-in-processed-foods

[10] https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/science-update/exploring-new-ways-combat-food-fraud

[11] https://www.insideeulifesciences.com/2016/09/28/french-pilot-on-mandatory-country-of-origin-labelling-cool-for-dairy-and-meat-in-processed-foods/

[12] https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/italy-introduces-new-labelling-law-for-dairy-products/

[13] https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/italy-demands-origin-labels-for-pasta-and-rice/

[14] https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2017/01/27/Portugal-to-trial-origin-labelling-for-milk

[15] https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2016/10/04/Greece-and-Finland-to-trial-country-of-origin-labelling-for-dairy

[16] Une fédération de l’industrie alimentaire dans l’UE, qui a pour objectif de promouvoir les intérêts de l’industrie en participant dans différents domaines, notamment la sécurité alimentaire, la durabilité écologique, et la compétitivité

[17] http://www.fooddrinkeurope.eu/news/statement/mandatory-country-of-origin-labelling/

[18] Un think-tank de l’industrie des produits laitiers, représentant l’industrie de traitement du lait au niveau européen

[19] http://eda.euromilk.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Public_Documents/EDA_Position_papers_-_Fact_Sheets/Position_papers/EDA_statement_on_mandatory_origin_labelling_long_2016_03.pdf

[20] https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-alimentation/news/italy-to-extend-country-of-origin-labeling-to-tomato-products/

[21] http://www.beuc.eu/publications/2013-00043-01-e.pdf

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