COOLing on mandatory origin labelling – EU Commission report published

On 20th May 2015 the EU Commission, pursuant art. 26 (5) and (6) of the Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 published the “Study on the mandatory indication of country of origin or place of provenance of unprocessed foods, single ingredient products and ingredients that represent more than 50% of a food”.

More report are expected to be published about:

(a) types of meat other than beef, swine, sheep, goat and poultry;

(b) milk;

(c) milk used as an ingredient in dairy products.

The conclusions of the study are the following:

  • In terms of factors affecting consumer purchasing decisions, consumer interest in origin labelling, ranks behind price, taste, use by/best before date, convenience and/or appearance aspects. Even if consumer interest in origin labelling for unprocessed foods, single ingredient products and ingredients representing more than 50% of a food is claimed by two thirds to three quarters of consumers, it is lower than for food categories such as meat, meat products or dairy products.
  • Consumers link origin information to various product aspects, such as quality, safety, environmental concerns and also declare that they would buy national products to support the economy of their country, with important differences amongst Member States. They would prefer information on origin at the level of the country compared with a EU/non-EU level and seem more interested in the place of production compared with the place of farming of the raw material.
  • Unprocessed foods, single ingredient products and ingredients that represent more than 50% of a food are food categories that gather very different products, for which consumer interest in origin information and economic impact of imposing a mandatory origin labelling varies greatly.
  • The supply chains for the three categories of foods in the scope of the report show that the origin of ingredients varies frequently to maintain low purchasing prices and to maintain the quality of the final product. Therefore, mandatory origin labelling at the EU level and even more at the level of the country is highly complex to implement in many areas of food, leading to substantial increases of costs of production, which ultimately would be passed on to consumers.
  • Origin labelling on a voluntary basis would be the least market disruptive scenario and would maintain product cost at current levels. It would not provide a satisfactory solution to the consumer demand for systematic origin information, but consumers could, if they so wish, opt for foods where origin information is voluntarily provided for by food business operators.
  • Mandatory origin labelling at EU level (EU/non-EU or EU/third country) leads to less important production cost increases, less burden for both food business operators and Member States competent authorities, but consumer satisfaction would be not as high as with mandatory origin labelling at country level. Unlike origin labelling at EU level, origin labelling at country level would have an 13 important impact on the internal market, with a possible increase of consumption of local foods for certain markets.
  • Both mandatory origin labelling scenarios at EU and country levels could impact on international food supplies and interfere with existing trade agreements with third countries. Additional labelling rules may lower the competitiveness of EU food business operators on the international market, while food business operators from third countries are concerned about potential additional costs of production and loss of exports to the EU because consumers would prefer foods of EU origin.
  • Finally, mandatory origin labelling would represent an additional burden on Member States competent authorities, in particular in the current economic environment, if they had to cope with the imposition of possible new control tasks for such additional requirements.
  • Against this background and in view of the Commission policies in terms of better regulation, voluntary origin labelling combined with the already existing mandatory origin labelling regimes for specific foods or categories of food appears as the suitable option. It maintains selling prices at current levels and still allows consumers to choose products with specific origins if they want to, while it does not affect the competitiveness of food business operators and does not impact internal market and international trade.

The report will be presented soon to the EU Parliament, but the chance to see a legislative proposal on mandatory COOL labelling for these categories of products seems, at the moment, at least less likely.

The next food fraud? Worse than the ”Horsegate”

If the explosion of the infamous “Horsemeat Scandal” was greeted at first with disbelief and barely concealed laughter from the public and media, the following concern for a public health risk revealed itself in a short time as completely not founded. None of these two reactions seem to be triggered by what could be the next food fraud scandal on a global scale.

The affected product, in this case, are spices (especially cumin, paprika and various mix) which, at a level not yet identified of the supply chain, have been adulterated with crushed almond shells, with the clear aim  of financial gain. The real risk – and what distinguishes this case from ”Horsegate” – is that such conduct poses a serious risk to the health of allergic consumers. Almond nuts

The tree nuts category, indeed, is one of the allergens that more easily could cause violent anaphylactic shock; the risk is more than real, since the analytical detection of almond’s traces (probably remained caked on the shells) was the cause of dozens of recalls and withdrawals from the market started in UK, US, Canada and several other European countries.

Although the intent of the contamination has not yet been demonstrated, it is clear that such a wide spread of withdrawals and recalls worldwide, as well as the involvement in the issue of many different brands on the market (even global retailers such as Morrisons and Sainsbury’s) and the different types product, clearly suggest a deliberate fraud.

Spices have quite high prices, which allow good profit margins through this kind of adulteration: in addition, not always the systems of internal traceability of the small and medium-size companies are adequate to the high complexity required by management of these raw materials and their mix. Finally, as highlighted by Prof. Chris Elliot in some recent interviews, the last season saw in Gujarat (India) a cumin harvest absolutely disastrous because of the weather, and this caused a spike in prices.

Although a British company, Bart Ingredients, has challenged the analytical methods used by the British “Food Standards Agency” (FSA), advancing the hypothesis of “false positives” attributed to another ingredient (the “Mahaleb”, extracted from a variety of cherry tree), the chances that this is proved true for all cases found seems utterly unrealistic.

UK, was the European country most affected by the phenomenon. Here the cumin’s consumption as a flavor enhancer in soups and processed products, and also in combination with other spices such as paprika, chili and curry, is very high. The extent of the contamination, however, is not yet fully established. At the moment there have been no reports of deaths or hospitalizations due to the issue, but unfortunately could only be a matter of time. The spices are used in many processed and prepacked foods and it will be very difficult to detect all the products contaminated and to remove them all from the shelves (e.g. the first recalls involved kit for fajitas in British supermarket).

This will be the first “stress test” for the newborn FSA “Food Crime United” and the UK food safety system as a whole, after its reorganization following the “Elliot Review”. Important signals, however, should also be sent by the European Commission, now engaged with the revision of Reg. (EC) n. 882/2004 and with the implementation of appropriate measures to fight frauds.