Sommer made her remarks following the vote of the Parliament’s ENVI committee vote on 420 amendments to the food information regulation this morning, at which MEPs approved three compromise agreements that had previously been made between political groups.
These compromises covered legibility of mandatory information, including a minimum font size of 1.5mm for mandatory information, or 0.9mm for packs under 80mm in size; clear labelling of allergens; and the freezing date on fish, meat and poultry products, but not composite foods.
However country of origin labelling (COOL) was not subject to a compromise, and the ENVI committee voted to go further than the Council, which was in favour of COOL for meat from cows, swine, goat, sheep and poultry, as well as honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables: now ENVI is holding out for COOL on all meat and poultry, milk and dairy products and other single-ingredient products, as well as for meat, poultry and fish when used as an ingredient in processed food.
Sommer said this may prove problematic in the forthcoming trilogues between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission, the first of which is planned for 10 May – and, if it makes it into the final version, would create huge headaches for small and medium food companies (SME).
While she said that personally she has nothing against COOL, “it has to be realistic and manageable”.
She pointed out that this means when fish, meat or poultry is not born, raised and processed in the same country all three countries must be listed.
Over 99 per cent of the 310,000 companies making up the European food sector are SMEs, and the burden of such detailed COOL would be too great for many of them. She also warned that such requirements would make it much easier for big players “to squeeze little ones out of existence”.
Sommer illustrated her point using the example of strawberry jam. In the globalised world we live in, the origin of the strawberries may change from one week to the other depending on cost and seasonality.
Is the manufacturer supposed to print 20 different labels for each batch, or list all the possible origins? What benefit would that be to the consumer, she asked.
Consumers not asking
According to the rapporteur, consumers are not asking for COOL; she said we don’t actually know what consumers want to see as the scientific research in this area is not yet complete.
However Glenis Willmott, S&D shadow rapporteur, who favours a label of origin for all meat and poultry, on both fresh and processed products, said: "Consumers concerned about animal welfare and the environment should know where the meat you buy comes from, including meat in processed products like sandwiches and ready meals."
Mrs Sommer, however, said she suspects that the voting of some member states was along national lines and led by desire to protect their markets – an influence she called “very dangerous protectionism”, and “a shameful decision”.
European food rules are based on the requirement that food must not make consumers ill; quality, meanwhile, depends on how much you want to spend. Mrs Sommer said she is concerned that with mandatory COOL “it could be the case that products from some members states are kept out of others”.
She added that no-one is stopping manufacturers from using COOL on a voluntary basis – and indeed this could be a good marketing argument for regional or local foods, or those produced in areas associated with traditional produce.
“If the consumer really wants to know the country of origin, that will happen through market forces,” she said.