On Wednesday (3 December) parliamentarians from all parties claimed that a comfortable majority of European Union consumers want to know where their meat comes from and what it consists of, following the horsemeat scandal of two years ago.
Environment committee MEPs wanted to question the new agriculture commissioner, Phil Hogan, who promised them labelling legislation only a few weeks ago, but he was elsewhere discussing next year’s agriculture budget.
In his absence, MEPs spent time arguing about the costs to industry and consumers that such labelling would cause. "We cannot go on like this," a Hungarian MEP declared. "We’ve got to clean up the agri-food industry. In my country there are many products costing less than €3 per meal. What kind of meat is involved in that?" An Italian colleague claimed that "labelling is absolutely the key, because any old stuff is put into sausages".
British Green MEP Keith Taylor said consumers did not have a clue where pork pies and chicken nuggets came from. "But to suggest, as some in the production industry have, that labelling would cost 50% more was a falsehood," he argued.
Glenis Willmott, a UK Labour Party MEP, said €0.015 cents per item was nearer the mark for such new labelling on beef lasagne, for instance. "What is the industry afraid of? We must come forward speedily with legislation."
There was also dispute about which producers would be hardest-hit. A Finnish member claimed small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were more in favour of origin labels, which could even help them as a sales promotion, she said.
By contrast, the larger producers used meats of such wide provenance that many had a clear interest in not declaring where it all came from, she argued.
In response to the many criticisms, a Commission official failed to be reassuring about a labelling law. He said the Commission "has not yet decided on any course of action. We need to engage in more consultation first."
The recent Commission report on costs had been validated by expert focus groups. It found that consumers were less emphatic about origin labelling once they learned it would make meat products more expensive.
The Committee will vote on the issue and amendments to a non-binding resolution on 21 January and it will be carried forward to February for consideration by the whole Parliament.