Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The cost of new fresh meat labelling rules

We all like to know what we’re getting for our money and fresh meat is no exception, reflected by the adoption of new EU country of origin labelling (COOL) rules.

The European Parliament has adopted extending mandatory country of origin labelling to fresh sheep meat in its ‘Food Information to Consumers’ report. The aim is to improve the existing labelling rules and provide greater clarity to consumers.

This has been in the pipeline for a long time and origin labelling has been one of the most debated issues of the proposal, not least because of the difficulty in finding a consensus between the European Parliament and the Council on extending COOL to basic foodstuffs.

Generally, the new rules will maintain the current approach that country of origin or place of provenance labelling on food is voluntary, unless its absence could mislead consumers. However, the standout feature for our industry is that origin labelling becomes mandatory for fresh meat from sheep, an indication that consumer concerns about the safety of meat remain. Once the legislation is published in the EU Official Journal at the end of November, the new rules for meat origin labelling are to be introduced within two years.

So what will it all mean? This approach has existed in the beef industry for some time as part of the fallout of the BSE crisis and the latest decision will mean that origin labelling will become compulsory for all kinds of meat. The belief is that by indicating the origin of food, consumers are better informed and can make decisions based on that, although many suspect that price will remain the first and decisive criteria when buying food. At a simplistic level the industry in the UK quite likes the idea, but unfortunately there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The down side of this legislation is that it will impose requirements of traceability to provide that level of assurance – inevitably, that will mean there’s a cost involved.

The government has welcomed the move, saying: "Shoppers will now be absolutely sure that if meat claims to be British, it will be British - reared to the high standards they'd expect."

Yet while the idea that there will be clear origin labelling on food is to be welcomed, what remains to be seen are the detailed rules which could include the need for full traceability. Unquestionably, the legislation will clearly improve the levels of transparency but as mentioned earlier, in practice there will be a cost involved. What remains to be seen is who will pay for it.

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