Published at www.eurofoodlaw.com on June 19, 2017
In recent months, the European food industry has witnessed a proliferation of national country of origin labelling (COOL) measures, which require food producers to indicate the country of origin of food placed on Member States’ market. Katia Merten-Lentz of international law firm Keller & Heckman looks at COOL’s rapid development.
Following several food scandals in Europe, such as the horse meat debacle, COOL is considered to be an appropriate instrument to tackle food safety and food quality issues and meet consumers’ demands.
This new approach could have been supported by voluntary initiatives from the food industry. However, Member States decided to take the lead and compel food businesses to indicate the food origin of products at national level, which may have several consequences on the food chain supply.
Vertical vs. horizontal approach
This proliferation is a result of the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) regulation which harmonises food labelling requirements at the EU-level.
Although European legislators reached an agreement to develop COOL on horizontal basis, Member States do not have the competence to agree on harmonised criteria.
The final FIC regulation provides mandatory COOL for certain meats (swine, sheep, beef and some poultry meats) and possible extensions to other products, where the Commission refused to act, considering that consumers were not prepared to pay additional costs.
However, under EU COOL rules, sausages made in Spain using Swedish pork can still legally be labelled as ‘Spanish’. In the wake of the horsemeat scandal and other food fraud cases, MEPs called on the Commission to come up with COOL measures for meat in processed foods, saying that impact on prices needs further checking. But the Commission didn’t.
So Member States decided to tap the last option provided by the FIC regulation (article 39), which allows them to adopt COOL measures if there is a proven link between certain qualities of the food and its origin or provenance.
National COOL experiments
France, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania, Greece, Finland and Spain have decided to require COOL for certain types of food products, such as milk and meat when they are used as ingredients in food or dairy products.
The Commission has already given the green light to the French, Italian, Portuguese and Lithuanian schemes, taking note that they are limited in time, and include a mutual recognition clause with “EU” or “non-EU” labels. Member States have also committed to report on the impact of these schemes on the internal market.
The two-year trial scheme by France started on January 1 and will last until 31st December 2018. It aims to assess whether consumers are willing to pay more for certain origins. Products containing more than 8 percent meat must indicate the place of origin, raising and slaughter of the animals, which are used in the preparation. For products containing more than 50 percent milk, the label must indicate the “country of collection” as well as the “country of transformation”.
Greece, Finland, Lithuania and Portugal notified similar projects to the Commission in 2016 and they are now hoping to get the same green light.
Protection of national names
For the moment, Italy requires an indication of “country of milking” as well as “country of processing” on dairy products like mozzarella and pecorino.
A new project has been notified to the Commission, extending mandatory COOLs to durum wheat and semolina in pasta. It promotes Italian wheat compared to cheaper products imported for the Italian pasta production, even if Italy cannot produce enough wheat compared to national demand (say manufacturers).
In fact, COOL laws also encourage the movement of consumer choice to local food and show them the benefits of the national production. In that sense, Romania and Hungry proposed “local food” laws, including COOL requirements and obligations for supermarkets to sell predominantly domestic food.
This protectionist form could be harmful to the functioning of the European market.
Here, the debate arouses old quarrels between farmers and food manufacturers. Measures boosting the national agricultural production can impede free movement of goods between EU member States, from which food operators can benefit a lot. Hence, Romanian and Hungarian laws are going too far, according to the Commission which started infringement proceedings in February 2017.
However, as food law is already mainly regulated by the EU, why not act on COOL at European level? Some European food industries, such as the rice industry, face important competition due to the import of rice from Asia. Italy is about to introduce COOL requirements on rice, to protect the national production. But according to the Treaties, international trade issues should be tackled by the EU.
From COOL to national “made in” trademarks
Member States seem willing to play more. Poland and Italy have announced their will to implement national food trademarks. In the wake of COOL, “Made in” labels aim to protect national production, but also to avoid competition at global level, where, for instance, Italian products face competition from products with Italian-sounding names.
Many food associations allege that these measures lack transparency in their development and risk long-term damage to the single market.
As a reminder, the ECJ has already ruled against Irish and German labels promoting national products (i.e. the famous “Buy Irish” in 1981).
Role of the European Commission
The European Commission safeguards the good functioning of the EU market, which has always been the key to success and competitiveness on the global market.
COOL is a solution at national level, but if the Commission doesn’t decide to act, it may raise concerns regarding efficiency of a common food market within the EU.