Is country of origin labelling a question of sustainability?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Some stakeholders see mandatory origin labelling as a triumph for sustainability, others are wary of 'mixing up concepts'. GettyImages/djedzura
Some stakeholders see mandatory origin labelling as a triumph for sustainability, others are wary of 'mixing up concepts'. GettyImages/djedzura

Related tags Country of origin labelling sustainability

Europeans want to know more about where their food comes from. Would mandatory country of origin labelling mean consumers make more sustainable food choices?

The European Commission is working on a proposal that could see mandatory origin labelling extended to more food products across the bloc.

Some stakeholders have interpreted this potential increase in regulation a triumph for sustainability, and an opportunity for responsible famers to create value.

Others, however, are wary of associating origin labelling with sustainability. They argue that suggesting a link is ‘mixing up concepts’, and that ‘locally-produced’ does not necessarily mean ‘more environmentally-friendly’.

‘Strong demand’ for origin information

In Europe, mandatory origin labelling already exists for several categories across food and beverage. These include fruit and vegetables, honey, olive oil, eggs, wine, spirit drinks, fish, beef, beef products, unprocessed meat from pigs, sheep, goats, and poultry.

However, ‘strong demand’ from consumers wanting to know where more food comes from has prompted the European Commission to act. As part of the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, the Commission has committed to proposing mandatory origin indication for certain products by Q4 2022.

Other drivers include growing demand for shorter supply chains, which has intensified during the coronavirus pandemic, and the increase of national origin labelling measures across the bloc. For the most part, these concern milk, and milk and meat as ingredients, explained Sabine Juelicher, Director of Food and Feed Safety, Innovation, at DG SANTE.

The Commission is concerned national origin labelling regulation is creating inequality across the single market – with some consumers having greater access to food information than others.

Surveys to date have indicated that consumers are most interested in extending origin labelling to milk and milk used as an ingredient, meat used as an ingredient, rabbit and game meat, rice, durum wheat used in pasta, potatoes, and tomato used in certain products, Juelicher told delegates at a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event.

‘Country of origin labelling is an indirect criterium for sustainability’

The European Commission’s proposal has been welcomed by many – some of whom see country of origin labelling as inextricably linked to sustainability.

Italian journalist Giorgio dell’Orefice stressed the importance of origin labelling for stakeholders at the EFF event.

“I think that sustainability has been the magic word that opens a new age for origin labelling. Today, people want to know everything about the food they eat. They want to choose their food consciously and responsibly.

“They want to know if their meat, vegetables, pasta or wine travelled thousands of kilometres to come to their table. They want to know how they have been produced.”

Dell’Orefice also believes expanded origin labelling regulation could provide an opportunity to industry and consumers alike. “This finally gives farmers and primary producers the opportunity to create value for themselves, for their services, and for consumers,” ​he told delegates.

veg Zbynek Pospisil
MEP Simone Schmiedtbauer believes clear country of origin labelling woudl empower Europeans to back more sustainable supply chains. GettyImages/Zbynek Pospisil

For Austrian MEP Simone Schmiedtbauer, who serves on the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, country of origin labelling is also associated with sustainability. She believes ‘clear’ country of origin labelling would empower Europeans to support local and regional – ‘and thus more sustainable’ – supply chains.

“To me, country of origin labelling is like an indirect criterium for sustainability. It gives every consumer the opportunity to consider environmental and climate aspects of production and transport in their purchase decisions.

“With country of origin labelling, consumers have the choice to opt for European products instead of imported goods.”

Beyond sustainability, which is key to Schmiedtbauer’s position on country of origin labelling – “Our food and feed does not have to fly across the Atlantic all the way to Europe” ​– the MEP also brought food safety and quality into the equation.

“Our current food system is the…safest in the world and we have the obligation to ensure that all food and feed imports from third countries meet our high standards. This is what the European citizens expects and also what they deserve.

“And it is our responsibility as delegates of the European Parliament, as the voice of European citizens, to ensure that.”

‘This is about origin and nothing else’

Not all agree that country of origin label is, nor should be, associated with sustainability.

Peter Loosen, who heads up the Brussels Office of Food Federation Germany, told delegates the origin labelling discussion is not an easy one.

“There are different views and interests. I think it will be key to make sure that when discussing origin labelling, we take care not to mix in concepts…be it food safety, be it quality, be it sustainability…

“This is about origin and nothing else.”

Further, Loosen argued that origin labelling does not necessarily equate to responsible production.

“You all know the example of the apple that has travelled very far, but still has a much better CO₂ footprint because it was not stored in [cold storage] for a very long time,” ​he told delegates. “So let’s make sure that those concepts are not mixed.”

truck yevtony
Sustainable production is not all about low transport miles, argues Food Federation Germany's Peter Loosen. GettyImages/yevtony

One way of examining potential links between sustainability and origin labelling could be to analyse other countries’ regulations and any knock-on effects they may have had.

Australia implemented country of origin labelling in mid-2016. Food and beverage makers had a two-year grace period until mid-2018 when the labelling scheme was enforced.

“We did a lot of consumer surveys and found that consumers just didn’t understand the origin statements that were being made,” ​recalled Joanna Grainger, Minister Counsellor, Agriculture, Australian Mission to the EU.

“It was common to see a product ‘Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients’ and that, as a label, seemed to really annoy consumers. They weren’t happy with the level of information.”

The regulation was, from the get-go, ‘only’ about origin labelling, Grainger stressed. “There is a lot of information consumers want to know about. They want to know about nutrition, they want to know about animal welfare, they want to know about regional information, equality, and of course, sustainability.

“But we recognise that our legislation only focuses on origin information for consumers.”

Last year, four years on from industry’s voluntary implementation, the Government launched a review to determine its efficacy and impact on business. Investigations are ongoing, with the report expected to be published mid-2021.

Grainger suggested she would be surprised to learn that the origin labelling scheme had significantly impacted demand for imported food.

“We don’t necessarily have any evidence, I don’t think – and I’ll be interested to see if the review [reveals otherwise] – that is has stopped us buying imported food. We’re a nation of migrants, we’re very hungry for imported food…we’re buying food from all over the world.”

The Minister Counsellor continued: “We don’t necessarily think that the origin labelling is impeding trade. And that’s important to us, because like the EU, we’re a trading nation.”

Echoing Loosen’s argument concerning the overall carbon footprint of foods, Grainger said Australia sees global food chains as making a ‘strong contribution’ to sustainable production. “Of course, transport is one element of the carbon impact of a product, but we see that, largely, it’s on-farm production [responsible for] the largest carbon impact of food production.”


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