Country Connection

Country-of-origin labelling on meat has sparked some lively debate, with one corner arguing it will lead to clarity for consumers and the other saying it would be a costly and unnecessary exercise. Keren Sall reports

Meat labelling and, more specifically, pork labelling has come under the spotlight following the recent contamination of Irish pork and beef with dioxins. It has led to renewed calls for clear transparent labelling of pork products and has lent a fresh impetus to the campaign by Jim Paice, shadow minister for agriculture and rural affairs, to make such labelling compulsory through legislation.

Paice is unhappy that, under the current rules, the country on the labels in supermarket shelves merely refers to the last place the meat product was processed. Thus British does not necessarily mean British.

The reality is that contaminated pork from the Irish Republic (or anywhere else for that matter) can be imported to Britain, turned into sausages, for example, and subsequently labelled in a way that suggests it is genuinely British, says Paice. It means that a consumer who hears the warnings about Irish pork and checks the contents of the fridge could make a dangerous mistake by thinking that, because a product says British, there is nothing to worry about.

Despite the failure of four attempts by Conservative MPs in recent years to force the government to consider compulsory country-of-origin labelling through Private Members Bills, Paice says he will continue to battle to make it a reality. He has the backing of Conservative leader David Cameron and, in the New Year, will highlight it in a TV programme headed by chef Jamie Oliver.

Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) is also keen on mandatory meat labelling. We do believe at QMS that the current measures are just a joke, as they suggest something is British when the label often just mentions the last place where the pork was processed, says Laurent Vernet, marketing manager for QMS. We think labelling laws should be changed not just for consumer protection, but also because it makes recall difficult if we dont know where the pork comes from.

Vernet is concerned that scares such as the current one can dent consumer confidence. The large majority of the pork industry is clean, clear and very honest. But the problem is that you just need one bad apple in the barrow to jeopardise our reputation. Consumer confidence has not been very much on the side of industry since BSE, he adds.

However, the British Retail Consortium is vehemently opposed to mandatory country-of-origin labelling. Our position remains that retailers have got a good position when it comes to country-of-origin labelling and actually go further than the recommended guidelines, says Andrew Opie, BRC director of food and consumer policy. We dont see the need for compulsory country-of-origin labelling for pork as we have for beef. If you look at the fresh pork joints, they all have country-of-origin labelling.

He also disagrees with Paices view that retailers are ambiguous in their labelling of processed pork products. If you pick up a pack of bacon in most supermarkets, it may list a couple of countries on the pack, because there is a huge issue about sourcing enough pork. The reason this is done by retailers is to help consumers make the right choice.

Opie also believes that some people confuse giving information to help consumers make choice with imagining that putting something on the label will further drive demand. It doesnt work like that, he says. People think that simply putting a Union Jack on the label will increase sales. But what really increases sales is consumers being convinced of the value and quality that British meat provides.

BPEX, however, is nervous of a change in law that would make country-of-origin labelling mandatory, because of the cost implications. What we would not seek is a replication of the beef regulations, as they cost a huge amount of money at the moment from individual animal identification right through to all the auditing, says Mick Sloyan, chief executive of BPEX.

The EU, he says, already has a country-of-origin labelling working group looking at this issue. Chances are that it will not look at it until 2010 and it will take that long because there are 27 member states to consider.

What Sloyan would like to see is retailers members of the BRC sign up to the FSAs Best Practice Guidelines on Labelling. If that were to happen, then we would achieve something straight away without going to the cost and expense of a legal process, he says.

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