UK labelling proposal under the spotlight

By Owen Warnock

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food labelling directive, European union, Uk

Owen Warnock, partner and food law expert at international law firm Eversheds, checks the fine print on calls for legislation in the UK regarding country of origin meat labelling.

High profile UK politicians are showing a lot of interest in the country of origin of meat ingredients in food products. Both the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, and his Shadow, Nick Herbert, have called for much greater clarity in relation to British made products which contain foreign meat.

And much of the campaigning on origin labelling has been on the basis that it is legal to describe sausages made from imported pork as ‘British Pork Sausages’ as long as the manufacturing took place in the UK.

The leading opposition party, the Conservatives, has published a Parliamentary Bill that requires detailed labelling of the country of birth, rearing and slaughtering of meat contained in foods. However, such rules might well be held illegal under EU single market rules.

What is the legal position?

Under existing UK Food Labelling Regulations, which implement the EU Food Labelling Directive, labels must state the place of origin of the food if failure to give that information may mislead the purchaser to a material degree as to the true origin of the food.

The accepted view is that the place of origin of food is the place where it last underwent a substantial change. That means that it would not be misleading to use words on a label that suggest a British origin for a product made in the UK even if some ingredients come from other countries.

There is in fact no definition in food law about what is meant by ‘place of origin’ of a food, and the interpretation above comes from the Trade Descriptions Act 1968.

However, there is also a general legal obligation not to use labels which are misleading

FSA guidelines

And the guidance issued by the UK’s Food Standards Agency takes the position that if consumers might understand ‘British Pork Sausages’ to mean that the primary ingredient, pork, is British then the labelling should be amended to make it clear that the pork is from another country.

But it is far from clear when a court will decide that consumers might misunderstand a label in this way. The FSA guidance deals with this by making some further ‘best practice’ recommendations which err on the side of giving additional information to the consumer.

For example the agency say that to describe a rabbit pie which was made in the UK from imported rabbit as ‘Produced in the UK’ would not be best practice and suggest instead ‘made in Britain from imported rabbit’.

The politicians weigh in

The Conservatives proposal would amend the Food Labelling Regulations to make it compulsory to set out on the label ‘particulars of the place of origin of the meat components of any meat product’.

This would apply, even if no claim of Britishness were made, to any meat which amounted to at least 10 per cent of the total weight of the product.

In addition the country of origin would be defined to mean the country where the animal was born. If the animal was reared or slaughtered in a different country or countries then those would also need to be stated.

Finally, under the proposed Bill, a product could not be labelled British unless the meat came from an animal which was born, reared and slaughtered in the UK - and it appears that that rule would apply even if the meat content was less than 10 per cent.

Limited in scope

The best argument to defend the Conservative Bill is that the EU itself is proposing very similar legislation, which suggests that there is a genuine problem that needs to be addressed.

However a problem with this is that the Bill is directed only at meat - if the intention is to prevent consumers being misled, rather than to protect the British meat industry, why is it not just as important to introduce similar rules in relation to the country of origin of plant ingredients?

What would the Conservative’s Bill mean for manufacturers?

The Bill would have a serious impact on labelling costs and practicalities - every time the geographical source of meat ingredients changed the in a product the label would need to change. In practice manufacturers would have to stick with a single country of supply, which would of course make it harder to keep ingredient costs to a minimum.

A second difficulty stems from the proposed ban on calling a product British if there is even the smallest amount of meat in it which was not bred, reared and slaughtered in the UK. Either a manufacturer cease to make such a claim or it gives British farmers a monopoly.

What will happen?

The EU is currently debating an update to the Food Labelling Directive, the Food Information Regulation, which would tighten the rules so that where the place origin of the food is not the same as that of one of its primary ingredients ​then the place of origin of the ingredient would have to be stated.

However, the Conservative Bill goes beyond those EU proposals and applies even if there is no risk of the consumer being misled.

There is a major EU law problem with the UK legislating on this issue as such legislation would amount to a restriction on free trade. EU states are forbidden from introducing such measures unless they are justified by considerations such as public policy or public health.

In relation to the origin of meat, clearly there is no public health argument, so the UK would have to rely on the ‘public policy’ caveat, on the basis that it is necessary to introduce these rules to avoid consumers being misled.

However, the European Commission might well reject this justification given that the existing Labelling Directive and the proposed Food Information Regulation both deal expressly with the issue, thus leaving no room for a member state to introduce tighter rules.

Related topics: Views, Policy, Food labelling

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