Belgium: Commission takes a semifreddo stand in its reports on mandatory COOL (Country of Origin Labelling) for several types of food products

02 July 2015

Maria-Paz Martens, Nicolas Carbonnelle

Currently, Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food to consumers ("FIC Regulation"1) does not impose a general requirement to provide origin labelling, except where failure to indicate it might mislead the consumer2. However, such requirement already exists for certain types of food, be it pursuant to the FIC Regulation or other legislation. This concerns e.g. beef meat3, unprocessed meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry4, fish5, fruit and vegetables6, honey7 and olive oil8.

On 20 May 2015, the European Commission adopted two reports for the European Parliament and the Council, further to the requirement vocalized in recital 32 and article 26(5) of the FIC Regulation, exploring the possibility to extend mandatory origin labelling to certain types of foods. The first report9 relates to mandatory origin labelling for unprocessed foods10, single ingredient products11 and ingredients that constitute over 50% of a food12, and the second report13 covers milk14  and meat other than beef, swine, sheep, goat and poultry meat15.

Main findings of first report

The first report reveals that voluntary origin labelling is rarely used for food categories covered by the report. Consumers' interest in origin labelling for these products generally appears relatively low. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of the interviewed consumers would prefer origin information at country level. The report noted that while the study estimated a high willingness to pay for the products under the scope of the study, there is a significant gap between consumer intention and actual behavior.

The report further concluded that examination of the supply chain for the three categories of foods in the scope of the report shows that the origin of ingredients varies frequently to maintain low purchasing price and to maintain the quality of the final product. Consequently, mandatory original labelling at EU or national level would be highly complex to implement and would lead to a substantial increase in costs of production, which would ultimately be passed on to the consumers. Therefore voluntary origin labelling would be the least disruptive scheme and would maintain product cost at current levels. While it would not provide a satisfactory solution to consumers’ demands for systematic origin information, such consumers may then opt for foods where such information is provided.

Against this background the European Commission expressed its preferred option to be voluntary origin labelling combined with the already existing mandatory origin labelling regimes, since that would maintain prices at current levels and would still allow consumers to choose products with information as to origin if they want to. Furthermore, it does not affect competition between the relevant businesses nor impact the internal market and international trade.

Main findings of second report

The second report finds that consumers are strongly interested in origin labelling of milk (either used as such, or as an ingredient in dairy products), as well as meat. Nevertheless, the willingness to pay for that information seems to be modest. In the 2013 Eurobarometer only around half of consumers declared their willingness to pay 1-2% more to have origin information for the products the subject of this report.

The report further concluded that for the mandatory origin labelling scheme, the preference was for the indication to be at country level. Although the cost of labelling the origin of milk could be modest generally, its impact among operators will be uneven with some of them having to introduce additional traceability systems with a substantial increase in costs (particularly those located in border regions or where milk production is low).

As regards milk used as an ingredient in dairy products, the report shows that the mandatory origin labelling scheme would result in adverse economic impacts and further traceability requirements which may prove burdensome for highly processed products. The scheme would also cause additional operating costs for the meats under the remit of the report.

The European commission did not indicate a preferred option.

Impact of these two reports

For now the reports are merely informative in terms of the different schemes that have been evaluated for assessing mandatory origin indications. It remains to be seen how the discussions in these reports will develop in the European Parliament and Council and whether or not these reports will indeed function as a stepping stone to more concrete legislative proposals.

However, it is very clear that any mandatory origin labelling scheme comes at a cost. Both EU and non-EU based food businesses supplying or using the products examined in these reports, may want to closely monitor the developments in this area, and may wish to have their voice heard early on in the process. Given that the trend is likely to be towards increased consumer information regarding origin of food ingredients, manufacturers of multi-ingredient food products will have a keen interest in understanding the likely increased costs that the introduction of any new labelling requirements would incur.

Input to the discussion may be provided via contacts with the European Commission, Members of the European Parliament or via national governments of the EU Member States.

[1] The FIC Regulation which lays down new food labelling rules in the EU has been applicable since December 2014, with the exception of mandatory nutrition labelling, for which the requirements have been applicable since 1 April 2015 to pre-packed meat (Member states may decide to extend them to non-prepacked meat as well).

[2] Currently the FIC Regulation requires mandatory labelling for honey, fruit and vegetables, fish, beef and beef products, olive oil, wine, eggs and imported poultry.

[3] Regulation (EC) No 1760/2000 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 July 2000 establishing a system for the identification and registration of bovine animals and regarding the labelling of beef and beef products.

[4] FIC Regulation.

[5] Council Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 of 17 December 1999 on the common organisation of the markets in fishery and aquaculture products.

[6] Commission Regulation (EC) No 1580/2007 of 21 December 2007 laying down implementing rules of Council Regulations (EC) No 2200/96, (EC) No 2201/96 and (EC) No 1182/2007 in the fruit and vegetable sector.

[7] Council Directive 2001/110/EC of 20 December 2001 relating to honey.

[8] Commission Regulation (EC) No 1019/2002 of 13 June 2002 on marketing standards for olive oil.

[9] COM (2015) 204 final Report regarding the mandatory indication of the country of origin or place of provenance for unprocessed foods, single ingredient products and ingredients that represent more than 50% of a food.

[10] Defined in the FIC Regulation as "foodstuffs that have not undergone processing, and include products that have been divided, parted, severed, sliced, boned, minced, skinned, ground, cut, cleaned, trimmed, husked, milled, chilled, frozen, deep-frozen or thawed" as for example flour and rice.

[11] To be understood as products that contain only one ingredient or feedstock, e.g. sugar, vegetable oil, tomato purée etc.

[12] e.g. tomato sauce, or fruit in fruit juices.

[13] COM (2015) 205 final Report regarding the mandatory indication of the country of origin or place of provenance for milk, milk used as an ingredient in dairy products and types of meat other than beef, swine, sheep, goat and poultry meat.

[14] More specifically, milk and milk used as an ingredient in dairy products, as defined in Regulation No 1308/2013, Annex VII, Part III.

[15] i.e. fresh and frozen meat from horse, rabbit, reindeer and deer (farmed and wild), as well as from birds other than chicken, turkey, duck, goose and guinea fowl.