Food labelling is back in the headlines as EU ministers meet today to discuss the deepening horse meat crisis as it spreads across Europe. As recent events have shown, regulations regarding food labelling in the UK are lax and frequently serve to mislead the consumer.
The public have a right to expect that the food they buy reflects what it says on the label. At present, the likelihood seems to be that the presence of horse meat in the food chain may well be the result of deliberate criminal fraud, but loopholes in the regulatory regime have long meant that labelling simply doesn't help consumers to make a fully informed choice about the products that they buy.
Consumers increasingly expect a wide range of information about the foods on offer to them, whether it is the system under which eggs are laid, the variety of strawberry, or the country of origin of meat in processed products, such as pork pies. Some may want to support farmers from particular countries, or avoid goods produced in others; knowing where a food is from indicates the food miles that it entailed; different countries have different standards on animal welfare and shoppers may wish to avoid meat reared in countries whose standards they find uncomfortable. Under the present rules however, shoppers cannot always obtain accurate information about the origin of meat and fish ingredients.
Clear country of origin labelling is an issue the WI has been lobbying on in Europe since 2010. The last round of negotiations on this saw MEPs agree to adopt regulations to include the origin of fresh meat on their labels, yet for other produce, UK consumers have been left to rely on the goodwill of retailers signing up to a voluntary scheme amid concern mandatory origin labelling is too complex and too expensive.
While recent events have demonstrated the complexity of the food chain very clearly, research shows that consumers want country of origin labelling that reflects their understanding of food. With meat products they want to know where the animal was reared, rather than where the final product was packed and produced. Surveys carried out by the WI showed that 95% of members believed country of origin labelling to be an honest representation of where the ingredients were sourced, and that 93% agreed that a product should be labelled as a national product only if the key ingredients were sourced there.
Recent events have understandably left consumers nervous about the contents of the food they buy. While the government have been reluctant to implement a mandatory approach to country of origin labelling to date, a change in the regulatory system now seems inevitable, and when it comes, it should abolish the loopholes and let consumers make an informed choice about what ends up on their plate. Rebuilding consumer trust in our food system will be a major challenge for government, retailers and manufacturers. Clear country of origin labelling is a good place to start.