French agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, announced plans last month to make country of origin labelling for processed foods mandatory, urging manufacturers to provide the information on a voluntary basis in the meantime.
But the results of UFC Que Choisir’s survey, which analysed the labels of 245 common products using beef, pork and chicken manufactured by 13 large national manufacturers and seven retailers, suggests there has been little uptake so far.
Overall 54% of products did not state the origin of the meat but this rose to 74% for chicken and 57% for pork. This was even more prominent for chicken and pork sandwiches – a massive 92% of which did not indicate the meat's origin. This was closely followed by chicken nuggets (88%).
Calling the results pitiful, the watchdog urged the EU Parliament to increase pressure on the European Commission (EC) to enshrine origin labelling in law.
Processed beef products fared slightly better – 50% of bolognaise sauces informed consumers of the origin of the meat as did 82% of frozen meals.
Manufacturers Findus, Le Gaulois, Charal and Marie were praised for labelling all of their meat products while Daunat, Père Dodu and Sodebo did this for none of their products.
Intermarché came out top among retailers, labelling 84% of its private label products compared to less than a quarter (23%) for LeaderPrice.
Too complicated and costly?
“To oppose mandatory labelling, the industry lobby argues that origin labelling would be impossible for highly processed products. False! Although Strasbourg sausages only contain two main ingredients (meat and fat from pork), origin labelling is rarer (25%) for these than for complete meals (38%) whose recipes are much more complex,” says the watchdog.
It also rubbished the argument that mandatory labelling would make products too expensive for the consumer. While industry organisations had claimed it would hike up production costs by up to 50% and administrative costs by 12% - 90% of which would then be passed on to the consumer – UFC Que Choisir calculated a 0.67% difference in the price of labelled versus unlabelled products.
This was the equivalent of 2 cents more for a chilled shepherd’s pie or 0.6 cents more for a tin of ravioli.
The watchdog also spoke against the tendency to promote country of origin labelling as a ‘patriotic effect’, when the real issue was food safety and transparency for the consumer.
Meanwhile director of food and health at French food industry group, ANIA, Cécile Rauzy, said: “Origin labelling gives a significant competitive advantage to the companies and brands that use it. Many of the top national brands and retailers are now offering this information to consumers. At ANIA we believe this dynamic will naturally grow.”
But she warned that mandatory origin labelling would need to be enacted in a way that would not penalise consumers and France’s export market.
“Remember that 68% of French food exports are destined for EU countries. In this European context, and with regard to the tense and fragile economic situation of all actors in the French food industry, it is necessary to evaluate the medium-term impact on their competitiveness,” she said on ANIA’s website.
The vast majority (93%) of meat products that were labelled were French. One beef product came from Brazil, three ham products were from Spain while four labelled chicken products came from Brazil, Poland, Germany and Holland.
The full report in French can be seen here.