n Labelling that shows consumers the origin of every ingredient in a product is resisted by some manufacturers but championed by the Food Standards Agency. Ed Bedington explores the opposing views Of all the issues surrounding the food industry, food safety is perhaps one of the most important. From a consumer perspective the issue is simple - they want food that is safe to eat. Aside from ensuring food is produced in a safe, healthy environment, another important step is to make sure that every product that ends up on the shelf can be traced back to its origin. This means if any problem occurs it can be quickly tracked to its source, minimising the risk both to the consumer and the brand. However the debate currently raging is whether or not those details should be included on the pack for the consumer. The Food Standards Agency is the main driving force behind the initiative. It wants to see the information on a wider range of products, especially meat products. It is also pushing for clearer rules on wording to cover the potential confusion between place of processing and origin. For instance a pig may be reared in France while the pigmeat is processed in the UK, but that does not make it British pork. The agency's stance has been welcomed by the Consumers' Association. Senior public affairs officer Mona Patel says: "We recently had the dioxin scare in Belgium and consumers wanted to know whether the products they were buying were from Belgium or not. Origin labelling would have told us that." Under the European Food Labelling Directive it is illegal to mislead a consumer about the origin of a product, for example if something was being marketed as a traditional English apple pie, when French apples had been used. And there are regulations on beef too. EU law states that there must be knowledge of the country of birth, rearing, and slaughter for beef products. Patel says this is important for consumers. "Obviously some countries in the EU have been classified as BSE free but without the info on the pack, how are we going to know?" But not everyone is as happy with the FSA's suggestions and many manufacturers say the agency is going too far by demanding the origin of ingredients on the label. Michael Hunt, manager of food and labelling law at the Food and Drink Federation, says: "It begs the question, how much information do people really want? The principal concerns have arisen from meat products and everything else has been swept up into it. It's easy to apply to primary products like meat, but when you get into more complex areas, like ready meals, it's a different matter." Hunt points out that many producers of more complex products source from a variety of origins, a large number of which could easily change from week to week. To keep the labelling accurate and up to date would mean altering it on a regular basis and that would add costs." If not that, he adds, "it will severely restrict my supplies and perhaps even jeopardise my operations. If consumers want to know this information, then companies will gladly tell them, without having to write it on the labels." His views are echoed by retailers. Safeway's director of communications Kevin Hawkins says when it comes to meat, country of origin labelling is important, but not on everything. "The concerns surrounding meat show we have to move down this road. For other products, non-meat based, then that's more arguable. If there's no obvious threat to health, my view would be not to include it," he says. Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, agrees: "Not only do we think requiring country of origin is impractical, but it could easily be used by those with a vested interest for the purpose of protectionist drives." And this of course could lead in turn to tit for tat activities ­ English consumers avoiding French products and French consumers boycotting English produce. However not all retailers and manufacturers are against the idea. The Co-operative Group welcomes the move and dismisses claims that there isn't enough room to include the information. General manager of retail brands Wendy Wrigley says: "It doesn't take up that much space. You're talking about the key characterising ingredients and that's the sort of thing people want to know. It's all about ensuring people understand where something comes from." However is country of origin really something consumers are crying out to know? According to the Consumers' Association it appears on the radar only after a food scare, but Patel says that is enough to warrant action. "People may only tend to consider it when there's a food scare, but when it does come up, people want to know and that suggests that something needs to be done." And the FSA says manufacturers' fears about having to restrict sources are unfounded. A spokesman says: "The intention is for manufacturers to provide information on their sourcing practice. Indicating that a range of sources can be used is better than giving no information at all." And, with sensible discussions within the industry, it believes a solution could be reached to provide the information without imposing burdens on suppliers. {{FEATURES }}