Which? research has shown that most people are interested in knowing where their food comes from, particularly when it comes to meat. The horsemeat scandal brought this to the fore - 83% of people said they wanted to know the country of origin of meat products in a survey immediately after the scandal.
Country-of-origin labelling would not have prevented Horsegate - if fraudsters can deceive people that horse is beef, they are unlikely to be afraid to deceive them about origin - but a greater focus on origin could have helped enhance traceability across meat supply chains.
It is, therefore, hugely disappointing that recent rules meant to make origin labelling for meat clearer for consumers are likely to have exactly the opposite effect, resulting in more confusion. When we buy beef we can see where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered because that’s what’s legally required, but that won’t apply to other species. Under new rules, the legal minimum is to show the country of rearing and slaughter when you buy pork or lamb, for example.
Consumers will therefore have less information. Horsegate highlighted just how much animals, meat and meat products can be shipped around. Pork, labelled as reared and slaughtered in the UK, may have been born in Denmark or the Netherlands, for example. It could even have spent the first couple of months of its life there as the new legislation will only require the place of ‘rearing’ to be the place it spent its last four months before slaughter.
“Consumers must be able to identify what is British and what isn’t”
This is not only misleading for consumers, it’s unfair for UK farmers as people will think they are buying and supporting locally produced food when they aren’t. If the label specifies ‘origin: UK’ then it does have to be born, reared and slaughtered here, but are people really going to make this distinction in the supermarket?
The European Parliament voted to overturn these new rules on Thursday, calling for redrafting to include place of birth. The European Commission needs to act. In the shorter term, Defra needs to limit the damage by reaching an agreement across the industry that will enable consumers to identify what is genuinely ‘British’ and what is not, ensuring labels take account of place of birth in addition to rearing and slaughter.
Labelling of meat products is next up for debate. It is time to learn the lessons from the horsemeat scandal and the numerous food scares that have gone before and simply respect people’s ability to make informed food choices.
Origin information should be required and provided in a way that will actually be meaningful to consumers.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?