“Eight out of ten people think it's important that country of origin labelling (COOL) should be mandatory.”
Choose the metaphor that best suits you. Country-of-origin and nutrition labelling is:
A) A waste of time, money and energy
B) Essential for consumers to make informed choices
C) An effective way for brands to communicate their values.
Depending on who you are, and the industry you're in, it's entirely possible your choices may oscillate widely across the spectrum.
If you're the European Parliament, then your choice will most certainly be paddling around in the bottom two options. In fact, in June 2010, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted for labelling regulations that will see food labels include mandatory nutritional information and guideline daily consumption amounts.
"MEPs voted for labelling rules that will enable consumers to make healthy, well-informed choices, while limiting as far as possible the administrative and financial burden on food businesses," said German MEP Renee Sommer. "This legislation should lead the way to consumers being clear about where their food comes from."
It's a view supported by most Europeans, according to a survey that showed around eight out of ten people think it's important that country of origin labelling (COOL) should be mandatory. This means that people will be able to tell not only where their food originally comes from but also where it last underwent a 'substantial change'. Legally, a food's 'origin' is the place where it last underwent change so, for example, the ingredients of a product could be from Denmark but if they are combined in the UK, then their country of origin is Britain.
It's an issue that has become somewhat of a battleground as politicians, lobby groups, legislators, nutritionists, environmentalists and brand managers compete to have their voices heard. Should labels, for example, contain information about the food's impact on animal welfare, its use of sustainable palm oil, cocoa and soya, or its carbon foot implications?
The European Parliament's decision to support comprehensive changes to the labelling system should go a long way to providing clarity around the issue, said Sommer.
"Country of origin labelling is already compulsory for certain foods, such as beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables. That means consumers can choose a locally grown tomato or one grown further afield. MEPs supported extending this to all meat, poultry, dairy products and other single-ingredient products, as well as voting for the country of origin to be stated for meat, poultry and fish when used as an ingredient in processed food. However, this may be subject to an impact assessment."
Meat labels are required to indicate where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered, while meat obtained from slaughter without 'stunning' (according to certain religious traditions) should be labelled as such.
In the June 2010 ruling, MEPs also backed the European Commission proposal that quantities of fat, saturates, sugar and salt - as well as energy - must be indicated on the front of food packets. These should be accompanied by guideline daily amounts and expressed with per 100g or per 100ml values. They also voted for details of protein, fibres and trans-fats to be included elsewhere on the packaging.
However, not everyone was satisfied with the regulations that will determine what information we see in supermarkets.
The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) claimed that the introduction of compulsory country-of-origin labelling, including food coming from other EU countries, was "a slap in the face for small and medium SMEs". UEAPME's food policy advisor Ludger Fischer argued that such a requirement "will trigger enormous complications" for small businesses changing ingredients very frequently. "I call on the European Council to reject this clause if it is serious about protecting the distinctiveness of typical European fresh foodstuffs."
So too some manufacturers argued the ruling was "impractical and hugely expensive, without delivering any meaningful consumer benefit".
One move that surprised health campaigners and some manufacturers was MEPs rejecting proposals to introduce the controversial EU-wide 'traffic light' system which gives consumers a visual warning by requiring certain processed foods to bear read, amber and green values to indicate high, medium or low levels of salt, sugar and fat.
'Traffic light' coding is already used by some supermarkets across Europe and the idea has the backing of the European Consumers' Organisation BEUC. "Independent research tells us that shoppers find this colour-code labelling scheme the easiest to understand," says BEUC Director General Monique Goyens. "Despite being presented with a wealth of independent research confirming that the vast majority of consumers wanted the colour-coding system, MEPs have mystifyingly voted against it. One wonders how we are to convince lawmakers that the fight against obesity and the battle to improve public health needs to start with action today, not tomorrow. There is no doubt that the vote was a very, very serious setback," she said.
Once the legislation is adopted, food businesses will have three years to adapt to the rules. Smaller operators, with fewer than 100 employees and an annual turnover under €5 million, would have five years to comply.
A cheese by any other name
In the UK, the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recently introduced a new code of practice on country-of-origin labelling requiring manufacturers to state the origin of liquid milk used in cheese and butter, or the place these products are manufactured.
The final draft of the voluntary code, which also covers meat, meat products and eggs, was published at the end of December 2010.
But Jim Begg, Director General of trade association Dairy UK, said the measures did not go far enough. "Our view is that consumer requirements for cheese can only be met by mandatory arrangements that recognize the place of manufacture of the product. At present, a product such as cheddar cheese might be labeled with the name and address of a UK seller, carry a UK identification mark because it's cut and wrapped in the UK, and yet have been produced in another Member State, with no indication on the label to this effect."
He said Dairy UK wasn't "looking for a simple solution to resolve the issue. You don't need a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But we do think that a mandatory element is necessary to be effective".
The outcome of the legislation was both uncertain and some way off, he added. "We're probably talking 2013 before anything happens on this, so we need to move now."