Always read the small print. Good advice and nowhere more so than in food labelling with today’s increasingly savvy consumers demanding to know what’s in their food, where it came from and what it’s going to do to them.
But too much small print can be bad for our health. Especially if food labels are bloated with so much information that we end up gorging on the irrelevant at the expense of the essential and companies are left staggering under the weight of an unnecessary bureaucratic burden.
Country of origin labelling (COOL) is a perfect case in point. With Europe’s robust traceability system, listing a food’s origin should be the most basic information we should expect and one no manufacturer should shirk from, right? So why does the COOL issue provoke so much heated debate?
The fact that the European Union has been wrestling with this for more than two years and has yet to come up with a system that satisfies industry, regulators and consumers shows it is anything but straightforward. The devil, as always, in the detail – which leads us back to the small print.
And a mass of small print is what some food processors fear if draft legislation adopted the European Parliament last week extending COOL makes it onto the statute books. MEPs voted to expand this obligation from just beef and some other products to all meat, poultry, fish and dairy products. They also decided that country of origin would have to be specified for all meat, poultry and fish when used as an ingredient in processed foods.
It is no surprise that the ruling received a mixed reception from industry: A warm round of applause from meat producers; dismay from the dairy sector while others took a deep breath and said they would reserve judgment until the broad sweeps was fleshed out with more detail.
Supporters of the proposed COOL regulation say it would put a stop to the practice of meat imported from countries outside the EU being processed, say in Ireland, and then being labelled as produce of Irish origin. While this is it legal, they say, it seems neither fair nor equitable as it comes perilously close to misleading consumers.
Opponents counter by arguing the imposition of COOL across the board would cause serious difficulties for manufacturers of complex products such as pizzas, pies and ready meals that buy ingredients from multiple sources according to factors such availability or seasonal variation. Taken to its most extreme, they warn of vast labels listing the origin of dozens of ingredients, covering swathes of food packaging. Constantly changing labels would increase costs and waste. And inevitably, these additional costs will be passed onto customers.
Everyone agrees consumers shouldn’t be misled about the provenance of food. But where do we draw the line between this and the heaping of questionable bureaucracy on companies that may force some players out of the market and cut customer choice?
On food labelling, as with everything else, knowledge is power. Devised properly they allow us to make informed choices about what we eat. But it is vital to find the balance between serving up portion-sized information that illuminates rather than dishing up an overload of data that risks keeping consumers in the dark and placing needless strain on food manufacturers.
There’s nothing wrong with small print - but let’s keep a cool head over COOL.
Rory Harrington is senior reporter on FoodProductionDaily.com. Over the past eight years he has worked as a travel and general news journalist before moving to France to cover the food industry. He doesn’t read food labels at the supermarket as often as he should - not through a lack of concern but because he generally forgets to take his glasses when he goes shopping.
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