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Origin labelling: A step towards transparency - or worrying form of ‘gastronationalism’?

Niamh Michail

By Niamh Michail+

18-Nov-2016
Last updated on 18-Nov-2016 at 13:16 GMT2016-11-18T13:16:58Z

© iStock/Sage78
© iStock/Sage78

Calls for mandatory country of origin labelling (COOL) are growing louder in Europe and supporters say it will restore trust, provide transparency and help consumers support local producers if they wish. But one political scientist sees it as "a nonsensical and worrying" form of 'gastronationalism'.

Europe’s food policymakers are going back to their roots. In recent months, the continent has seen a wave of measures being adopted or trialled aimed at supporting the domestic food industry.

France got the green light from the Commission to trial mandatory COOL for processed meat and dairy products, prompting Italy, Greece, Finland, Lithuania and Portugal to request similar labelling .

Romania has proposed a local food law which would see a minimum amount of products sold on shelves from Romanian producers while the Polish government is in the process of introducing a ‘Made in Poland’ label for foods containing a maximum of 25% imported ingredients.

Meanwhile Italy has sent a decree to Brussels to introduce compulsory labelling for the origin of wheat used in pasta products. Upon this announcement, the president of Coldiretti, the group that represents the interests of Italian farmers, Roberto Moncalvo, said: “Mandatory origin labelling for wheat used in pasta responds to requests by eight out of 10 Italians who deem it necessary to expose the deceit of foreign products passed off as Italian; one in three spaghetti or penne packs contains unacknowledged foreign products.”

© iStock

Trust and transparency

Deceit may be a strong word, although there is no doubt consumers felt deceived when the horsegate scandal hit several years ago, sparking a crisis in consumer confidence over murky food supply chains.  

For many, mandatory COOL is therefore simply about being more open over where food comes from, and it would seem a majority of Europe’s consumers are in favour.

According to a 2013 Eurobarometer survey, 90% of respondents said it was important for the origin of meat used in processed foods to be labelled, while 84% were in favour of mandatory COOL for milk in dairy products.

Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at European consumer rights organisation BEUC, said: “It is a question of transparency, about delivering to consumers the information they want to make informed food choices. Consumers are increasingly eager to know where and how food is produced. This trend should be supported, not hampered.

“Why are manufacturers hiding [this information]? There are many different reasons why consumers want to know their food’s origin. For many, the origin is part of a food’s quality attributes. Others have ethical or environmental considerations in mind, or they might wish to support the local economy.”

© iStock

‘It fits in with Europe’s revival of nationalism’

Others see COOL as a protectionist barrier to trade that threatens to break up Europe’s common market.

According to political scientist and professor at University College Roosevelt in the Netherlands, Herman Lelieveldt, mandatory COOL is as

Herman Lelieveldt

a mild form of ‘gastronationalism ’ – which itself is a spin-off of the more general nationalist wave currently sweeping the continent.

He argues the reasons consumers support mandatory COOL, cited above by Perrin, don't bear out in reality, and that COOL distracts consumers from making the ‘right’ food choices.

“By 'right' I mean more sustainable food choices giving more attention to human welfare (fair trade), animal welfare, and/or the environment. COOL does not say anything about these elements,” he told FoodNavigator.

Better for the environment?

Lelieveldt refers to a BBC article on “the myth of food miles”, which argues that, for example, due to the comparative advantage offered by New Zealand’s low carbon production of lamb compared to Britain’s, the carbon emissions of transporting the meat to the UK may not outweigh the embedded emissions of domestically-produced lamb.

“Consumers may be misled into thinking that buying foods that are from one's own country are good in terms of food miles, but the problem is that food miles in the sense of transportation costs of food are an incredibly small part of the environmental footprint of food.”

A sustainability case can be made for food that ‘travels less’ in the sense of being less processed and more wholesome but this is unrelated to COOL, he argues.

Supporting your local economy – what’s wrong with that?

Supporters point to the economic benefit of COOL. “Restoring consumers’ trust in their food is a market driver,” said Perrin, while Coldiretti has said Italian wheat consumers may be willing to pay 5-15% more for guaranteed Italian pasta.

If consumers want to support dairy farmers from their own country and are willing to pay more, should they not have the choice to do so?

© iStock/jenoche

This suggests that there is a direct link between COOL and giving farmers a fair price,” says Lelieveldt. “Buying milk from your own country does not really give farmers a better price automatically. For this milk processors should be willing to pay them better.”

Indeed, unfair trading practices, where powerful retailers and manufacturers squeeze farmers out of a fair price are commonplace throughout Europe .

Better quality and safer food?

The European Dairy Association (EDA) has said COOL goes against the single market principle, although if it is made mandatory there would be a level playing field for all producers.

However, it could mean greater headaches for, say, a milk processor located near the French-Belgian border who sources milk from both French and Flemish dairy farmers depending on availability and would be required to label the product as ‘produced using milk from different European countries’, or something along those lines.

European food safety guidelines ensure uniform food quality and safety across the bloc, but would consumers infer that this mixed origin milk is of lesser quality than the product sitting next to it that has a small French flag in the corner of its label?

“The simple requirement of indicating a product’s country of origin provides consumers with a false sense of security as it says little if anything about the quality of the final product,” says Lelieveldt.

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