Food origins: cutting to the trace

The Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) recent announcement that it is testing 100 food samples to verify their country of origin is the latest chapter in the supply chain story that began with last year’s horsemeat scandal. Clarification on where food comes from, how it is sourced and if it is correctly labelled continues to sit high on the agenda for both industry operators and consumers. We examine the issue ahead of new European Union (EU) labelling regulations set to come into force.

Where does my food come from?

Food origin is the fifth most important purchasing driver for EU consumers, particularly with meat products. Nearly half of all shoppers look at the origins of meat when making the decision to buy; a statistic that is likely to have risen in the wake of recent scandals for an industry that is already exposed to a variety of factors that influence costs.

Many consumers want to know about the provenance of their food for safety reasons. Country of origin labelling is already mandatory for a number of food products, including most fruit and vegetable produce, as well as beef products, honey, fish and olive oil. For all other food products, an indication of the place of provenance should be provided where its absence is likely to mislead consumers, for example a ready meal of spaghetti bolognese made in the UK but sold with images of Italy such as famous Italian landmarks and the Italian flag across the pack.

The horsemeat scandal raised questions in consumers’ minds about the integrity of the food supply chain overseas, and as a result, UK-sourced, British-labelled produce has increased in popularity. While this may have helped alleviate fears amongst the public, it may also have raised the risk of non-UK foods being misleadingly sold as British by some disreputable individuals keen to capitalise on the trend.

The future

In relation to the labels themselves, from December 2014, rules relating to mandatory origin labelling will be introduced for unprocessed meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. Additionally, where the origin of a food is given which is not the same as that of its primary ingredient, the provenance of the primary ingredient must also be stated (such as tinned peeled tomatoes, labelled as ‘Made in Italy’ because they were prepared and canned in Italy, will have to indicate the provenance of the fresh tomatoes if they were grown in China).

Origin labelling is not likely to stop there. The European Parliament believes that there is a need to explore the possibility of extending mandatory origin labels to other foods, so it has instructed the European Commission to prepare reports looking into the viability of origin labelling for seven further categories of food. This would need to take into account the need for the consumer to be informed, the feasibility of providing mandatory origin indications and an analysis of the costs and benefits; including the legal impact on the UK market and international trade. The reports will cover the following foods and must be submitted by 13 December 2014:

  1. meat, other than beef, swine, sheep, goat and poultry;
  2. milk;
  3. milk used as an ingredient in dairy products;
  4. meat used as an ingredient (this report was issued on 17 December 2013 and highlighted the complexities and costs involved in origin labelling, particularly for products with mixed origin and the benefit to the consumer was found to be limited in many cases);
  5. unprocessed foods;
  6. single-ingredient products;
  7. ingredients that represent more than 50 per cent of a food.

On the menu for the foreseeable future

The new labelling rules will extend some of the labelling obligations and should result in clear information for consumers about where their products have originated. With the resurgence of the popularity of buying British, this is not something that is likely to change soon.

If you have any questions please contact Anne Marie Taylor, Solicitor in the Food Sector group.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.