On 13 July, the French Parliament agreed the adoption of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the EU free trade with Canada. This new treaty facilitates, among other things, the entry of Canadian regulated meat on the European market.
However, the general public has its reservations about this part of the trade agreement, given the different viewpoints between the Canadian and European public on genetic modification, animal welfare and the use of hormones.
This raises the question of whether the European meat labelling requirements are adequate to make sure that EU customers are fully informed about the origin and growth conditions of meat imported under CETA.
Limitations of meat country of origin labelling
Under European regulation, the labels of beef and beef products, whether they are fresh or frozen, have to indicate the country of origin. This is defined as both the country in which the animal has been reared in and where it has been slaughtered.
European regulations remove any room for interpretation through a detailed scheme to determine the country of origin, depending on the slaughter age, weight and species of the animal. For instance, if a swine younger than 6 months and with a live weight of at least 80 kilograms is slaughtered, the third country of origin is the one where the rearing period after the animal has reached 30 kilograms took place.
In contrast, Canadian imported meat can have been partly raised in the US under US regulations, while its official country of origin is defined Canada. Today’s regulations and labeling requirements can leave the consumer unaware of its real origin.
Moreover, country of origin labelling is currently mandatory only for beef and beef products (a result of bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis). Even though the impact assessment of the Commission confirmed that the origin of meat appears to be a prime concern for consumers, the origin of swine, sheep, goat and poultry meat is not to be labeled, unless failure to indicate this might mislead the consumer.
This means that swine or poultry from Canadian origin can be sold within the European market without the requirement to inform the consumer of its non-European origin.
To counter this, several Member States – including France – have adopted experimental schemes of mandatory origin labelling for meat or meat ingredients. Depending on national rules, the Canadian origin of meat may be labeled.
Non-labelling of GMO feed
In the EU, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including those obtained through new breeding technics, are subject to a specific and strict legislation.
Again, the policy is significantly different in Canada, which is taking the lead in GMO development - genetically modified salmon is already on the Canadian market.
GM meat is still very rare and could not be imported to the EU under the CETA. However, there are some concerns about the use of GM crops in animal feed.
However, the lack of information on food labels alerting consumers to the use of GM feed is not specifically related to food imported under CETA: it also applies to meat of European origin.
In fact, GMOs are already imported from outside the EU’s boundaries as feed for farm animals. These GM crops are within the EU permitted as feed for livestock - and not as food. There is no requirement for them to be mentioned on the package.
Hormone treated meat and animal welfare
Any product placed on the EU market must be labeled in accordant with the FIC regulation.
However, the CETA raises new issues. Meat from animals treated with growth hormones is theoretically forbidden from being imported to Europe. However, the trade agreement remains silent regarding the import of animal waste and antibiotics fed animals. This silence could lead to “negative claims” initiatives in the EU and strengthen consumer’s information in accordance with EU law.
For instance, some companies are already promoting their meat by labelling animal welfare. The evaluation of the animal welfare is founded on international scientific referential and more than 230 criteria. The substantiation of “welfare” claims strengthens their compliance with the general food information requirements, as any information must be accurate and not mislead the final consumer.
Meat labelling remains consumers’ prime concern in the EU. However, CETA raises many questions and it is up to food businesses to comply with various requirements, in order to highlight their products and provide accurate information.