The Italian authorities have been extending country of origin labelling (COOL) requirements in the food sector, citing consumer desire for “transparency” as well as a need to protect the financial interests of Italian food producers.
In June 2016, the Italian government introduced an inter-ministerial decree governing dairy products on sale in the country. The regulation required manufacturers to indicate the source of the raw material used in items such as milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt. Dairy processors must also include details on the country of packaging and country of processing on-pack.
This February, similar rules will come into force for rice and pasta manufacturers as part of a two-year trial. During this time, food makers will have to indicate the country of origin of the grains used to manufacture rice and pasta products on-pack. Pasta products will also need to communicate the country of milling, while rice makers will have to show where products were processed and packaged.
Meanwhile, in September the country said it is bringing in origin labelling rules for tomato-based products. This aims to counter growing competition from cheaper imports of Chinese tomato puree.
According to figures presented by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, citing public consultation, 85% of Italians consider it important to know the origin of the raw materials that are contained in food products. This reflects concern over issues relating to food safety, the Ministry argued.
Detailing its complaint to the EC, FoodDrinkEurope said that Italy failed to comply with EU processes when it implemented these measures. The industry lobby noted that Italy adopted these measures without “prior notification” to the EU and suggested that their legality can be “questioned” by Article 34 and 36 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Preserving the Single Market?
Moving the debate away from transparency, FoodDrinkEurope argued that the issue is about preserving free-trade and the principles underpinning the Single Market.
“As the organisation representing the food and drink manufacturing sector, FoodDrinkEurope stands firmly behind the Single Market and the EU project. Twenty-five years of EU Single Market have brought significant benefits to both producers and consumers; thanks to deeply integrated European food supply chains and the possibility to trade freely, the industry has been able to ensure a constant availability of safe, diverse, high-quality food for consumers across the EU, at affordable prices. It has also spurred growth and increased competition in the food and drink sector,” FoodDrinkEurope insisted.
The sector body also suggested that the introduction of COOL regulations by eight member states, including France, Greece, Finland and Spain, are already “negatively impacting” food trade in the Single Market.
A spokesperson for FoodDrinkEurope said it is now up to Brussels to determine what the next step is.
Europe divided over COOL
Country of origin labelling is a controversial subject in Europe.
Italy has previously pressed for mandatory EU-wide COOL requirements. However, the Commission has refused to legislate citing concerns it would push up manufacturing costs and, ultimately, food prices.
EU regulation on food information to consumers does Member States to introduce additional mandatory labelling particulars for specific food categories - including on indication of origin - if they are justified on grounds of the protection of public health or consumers, among other issues.
While some countries have introduced COOL regulations in recent years, other European Member States are dissatisfied with the proliferation of national requirements. Earlier this year, Belgium – with the support of Germany, the Czech Republic, Netherlands and Luxembourg – called for the EC to conduct an impact assessment on national rules on mandatory origin labelling.
In response, the Commission asked Member States that have implemented such measures to provide feedback at the end of their “experiment”, which can run to 2019.