The vote, made by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), saw 48 votes in favor, 15 against and 4 abstentions for mandatory origin labeling for meat, under the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) regulation.
The decision will now go to a plenary vote in parliament where 751 elected members from 28 Member States will vote in favor or against the motion. If passed, it will then be left to the Commission to decide whether to pass it into law.
The ESA has been lobbying against such mandatory labeling for months – filing its formal position in October, last year.
Low percentage use not discussed
Marta de la Cera, regulatory and scientific affairs manager at the ESA, said yesterday’s MEP vote was far from what the snack sector wanted because such rules would be a big burden on manufacturers and logistically very complex. It was a shame, she said, that discussions on minimal use of meat ingredients, like for snack flavoring, had not taken place.
“We were hoping some of the positive amendments would be adopted… They’re not considering the wide range of different products and how you can use meat in different proportions,” she told BakeryandSnacks.com.
“The reaction is negative, as you can imagine, especially because we’re considering flavorings. It’s such a small quantity that it’s ridiculous for us. I don’t think anyone cares about the country of origin of a couple of grams of flavoring coming from meat," she said.
A typical potato snack, for example, contained less than 1% of meat used as a flavoring ingredient, she explained. “For a consumer, knowing that the flavoring comes from the Czech Republic rather than Slovakia doesn’t add much if it’s 1% of bacon flavoring in a packet of crisps.”
The added value in terms of information to consumers, she said, had to be weighed up against the added cost and logistical difficulties for manufacturers. For example, changes to packaging every time supplies changed - perhaps because of unexpected animal diseases, cost fluctuations or quality concerns - would be nearly impossible for manufacturers to achieve in a timely and cost-effective manner. "Sooner or later you'll come across these sort of things because that’s life – you need to make decisions and change your suppliers."
Food fraud, health risk reasoning
De la Cera said the ENVI committee was particularly concerned about food fraud – something they linked to consumer health and traceability and suggested could be prevented or controlled with country of origin labeling.
“We think it’s wrong. There is a misconception that mandatory information on country of origin is linked to better traceability. We contest that – traceability is one system that works internally and ensures that in case of any health risk products can be immediately withdrawn from the market but it’s really complicated to label it on the package of food. There are two separate things here and we think food fraud cannot be prevented because of traceability, we just need better enforcements,” she said.
Similarly, she said health concerns were separate to food fraud. “All the notions are mixed together and they’re [MEP Committee] not taking things one topic at a time.”
Voluntary ideal, minimum levels a compromise
The ESA has joined forces with other part of industry, including the meat sector, she said, to continue lobbying efforts with MEPs against the current motion voted on.
She said industry was in favor of voluntary country of origin meat labeling but not mandatory.
“This would mean consumers are free to choose if they want to pay more for something that clearly states the origin of the meat, or if they don’t care they can go for the cheaper products. It’s a win-win situation where everyone can get what he or she wants,” she said.
However, De la Cera said the ESA was now working with its members to pool information and data on how they used meat ingredients in their products.
“If this motion passes the plenary vote, I think there may be some room to negotiate. We can lobby to at least set a minimum level of meat to be labeled – I think that will be the most sensible thing to do for us. So, we will need to provide concrete data and arguments so we can say this is not giving any extra additional information to consumers as it is, especially when we’re talking flavors,” she said.
Pauline Constant, communications officer for food and health issues at BEUC – a European consumer advocacy group that has long backed mandatory meat origin labeling – said it would not object to a minimum meat requirement “as long as it meets consumers’ expectations”.
“For instance, some ready-made lasagnas contain only 12% of meat, but to most consumers, meat is a key ingredient in lasagna. In that case, it would be fair to request origin labeling,” she said.
Under FIC regulation, there are also discussions taking place on mandatory origin labeling for single-ingredient products, ingredients over 50% and unprocessed products. A report on this section of FIC are expected to published next month, De la Cera said, and if any mandatory regulation comes out of that, it would be an equal headache for the European snacks sector.
“This will be even more worrying for us as it basically covers all of our products – potato chips are basically potatoes, nuts are nuts but could also be considered as an unprocessed ingredient. So this is an even bigger problem in the sense we use bigger quantities and it changes much more during the year. The harvest of potatoes, for example, is not year-round so you need to source from different origins and nuts come from all over the world, sourcing which can change depending on quality.”
BakeryandSnacks.com spoke to the ESA last year about single-ingredient origin labeling – something it suggested would be a logistical nightmare for snack makers if made mandatory.