The big debate

12 June, 2009

There has been a major controversy over food labelling in the past year. Adam Baker investigates the effect it is having

All across Europe from May and early June, a strange sight was witnessed in cities as diverse as Plymouth, UK and Brno, Czech Republic. In shopping precincts and on street corners, two giant lifeless chickens the size of trucks, plucked and packaged, stood as silent witness to a promotional campaign encouraging people to vote in the European elections. The aim of the sculptures - for sculptures they were - was to demonstrate to people how the European Union affects their lives.

One of the chickens, featherless and sealed-up and packaged on a polystyrene tray, had no labelling or information on the cling-film of the product, while the second chicken was packaged and labelled with country- of-origin, nutrition information and quality assurance in a clear demonstration of the controversial food labelling debate, which has emerged as a major political issue in the past year. Both Labour and the Conservatives, as well as the Scottish Nationalists and the European Parliament have forced the subject into the mainstream.

The headline-grabbing issue is the interpretation of what allows a product to claim it is the produce of a country, when the ingredients have been largely sourced across the border. Politicians in the UK are now using this as part of their campaign for the next general election - something probably unthinkable five to 10 years ago.


Political hot potato

The politicisation of the labelling debate really started to get rolling under Defra Secretary of State Hilary Benn, who kick-started 2009 by talking about the labelling issue in his Oxford Farming conference speech. The Cabinet minister said one issue for the future was better information for consumers and better labelling of products.

"Just look at the growth in the market for local, seasonal and organic produce in recent years," said Benn in January. "People are thinking more about the quality, the nutrition, and the environmental impact of what they eat. So all of us need to give them as much information as we can."

That day, Benn gave the example of buying a car or house as a way of describing to farmers what standards are expected when a product is bought and how the same standards should be expected when it comes to food. "Under current European regulations, a product's country-of-origin is the place where it underwent its last significant process. But this can hide where it really came from," Benn added. "A pork pie made in Britain from Danish pork can legitimately be labelled as a British pork pie. That's a nonsense, and it needs to change. The scare over Irish pork in December and the problems involved in identifying which products were affected, also shows why good labelling matters. So we are pushing in Europe to bring about a change to clearer country-of-origin labelling, which will tell us where an animal was born, reared and slaughtered. But the EU moves a lot slower than consumer demand does. And processors and retailers could get ahead here by voluntarily introducing country-of-origin labelling."

Hot on the heels of Benn's comments and following a speech given by shadow Defra minister Nick Herbert at the National Farmer's Union conference in February, the Conservative Party launched its Honest Food campaign. The Opposition see this as a policy that can form its electioneering armour and has now launched an internet link on its website in support.

"The Honest Food campaign has a simple message - people have a right to know where their food comes from. Meat labelled 'British' should be born and bred in Britain, raised to our high welfare standards," said Herbert at the Birmingham conference. "Speaking before me, my opposite number Hilary Benn, said he wanted to see misleading labels 'stamped out'. What he meant was that he's still hoping for a voluntary agreement with the supermarkets. But you won't be surprised to know that the government first announced an agreement 10 years ago."

Party leader David Cameron also chipped into the debate last month in his speech to the Royal Bath & West show in Somerset, where he said inaccurate labelling let down consumers, hurt farmers and undermined animal welfare improvements.

An ICM poll, commissioned by the Conservatives, shows that nearly two-thirds of people want to know which country the food they buy comes from - a keener requirement in women than in men - while 87% agree with the statement that the government should ensure that country-of-origin is displayed clearly on food. Fifty-one per cent of voters also believe that a product such as sausages or bacon, which is labelled as British or 'produced in the UK', means that it is from an animal reared in Britain while 44% think that it means that the sausages or bacon are processed here, using imported meat. Eighty-nine per cent of voters, meanwhile, feel that a meat product labelled as British or 'produced in the UK' should mean that it is from an animal reared in Britain.

Consumers, when asked, will always say they want produce said to be 'Made in Britain' to have all ingredients sourced from this country, but with many supermarkets legitimately keeping within the rules of the EU, consumers can be frustrated somewhat by what they see as misleading labelling. In a recent investigation by the Sunday Telegraph, several examples of this came to light: a pack of Eight Thick Cumberland Pork Sausages from Tesco was revealed to have on the label "EU pork"; a packet of Sainsbury's "wafer-thin" Roast Chicken Slices read "produced in the UK for Sainsbury's Supermarkets", but elsewhere added "produced from Brazilian or British chicken"; Asda Venison Steaks were "produce of more than one country"; while a Waitrose Easy to Cook Lamb Joint with a Sweet Redcurrant and Rosemary Glaze had packaging that said "produced in the UK from British or New Zealand lamb for Waitrose". Eurosceptics will blame all this confused labelling on Europe, but the cogs of political change abroad are starting to turn in response.


Message from Brussels

As all this political clamouring in the UK reached a hiatus, the European Commission launched proposals that could make foreign foodstuffs being labelled British a thing of the past. It has outlined a number of suggestions, including extending labelling that identifies the place where agricultural product was farmed. "The EU's agri-food sector has a well-deserved reputation for high quality thanks to decades, even centuries, of commitment to excellence," says Agriculture and Rural Development commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel. "Our farmers have to build on this reputation to sustain their competitiveness. They need to communicate better with consumers about the qualities of their products. The EU is willing to help in this effort. We have a golden opportunity to bring more coherence and simplicity to our labelling and certification schemes."

The proposals set out in May by the Commission will not be made into formal legal proposals until next year, so consumers who are bothered by this issue will be forced to consult the small print of the labelling throughout 2009.


Avoiding sticky situations

As labelling gets political, firms such as Bizerba, AEW Delford and Avery Berkel involved in making labelling machines for processors, multiples and retailers, have had to keep their eye on the shift in attitude to clearer, more 'honest' labelling when dealing with clients, who are in turn responding to customers and consumers. "Bizerba adopts a global approach to the operating software in our labelling devices, which means we have to react quickly to both European legislation, and the global requirements for labelling foodstuffs," says Bizerba marketing communications manager Liesl Marchand. "We have a number of customers who export to the US market and beyond and are perfectly placed to supply a labeller with the versatility to cope with our customers' export requirements."

Meanwhile, AEW Delford's project applications engineer Simon Tinney feels it is not the labelling that is the difficult part, but all the back-up requirements to ensure the correct information is applied to the correct tray when it comes to processing the product. "With product being sourced globally and all the recent 'food scares', the requirements for full traceability have increased dramatically. This has meant the emphasis has shifted from standalone solutions to units fully integrated into the factory IT systems," says Tinney. "Due to an increase in the requirements for 'C' wrap labelling we recently introduced a labeller capable of applying 'C' wrap and the normal top label using a single applicator, rather than having two separate units."

At Avery Berkel, marketing and development director Peter Williams feels that, in recent years, the company has seen an increase in demand for practical labelling solutions that help customers comply with legislation governing food safety, labelling and traceability at counter level. "This has been driven by the introduction of EU legislation, firstly for beef traceability, then fish sourcing and, later, labelling of all fresh foods with auditable batch data," Williams says. "This was given further impetus by several high-profile food scares, resulting in the need to trace and remove contaminated batches from sale."

Bizerba's Marchand adds that she foresees the multiple retailers reducing the amount of packaging used on food products and, with this in mind, Bizerba has developed its C-Wrap labeller in response. "This device can apply direct thermal and non-thermal labels of the dimension 300mm long x 104mm wide around three sides of a tray of product or, with the simple removal of a vacuum plate, be converted to a conventional top labeller applying labels from 100mmx100mm down to 30mmx30mm," she says.

"On the longer C-Wrap label, we are able to print along the full length of the medium. This means we can position any important information such as price, weight and recommended daily allowance (RDA) information on the front of the pack and the bar code on the base of the pack for quick and easy scanning at the checkout."

One of Avery Berkel's most recent developments is the WA and WS series in-store packing system for weighing, wrapping and labelling. "The system uses advanced image capture and processing techniques to cut operator time by up to 30% and reduce wrapping film costs by 25%," says Williams. "The WS25 system chosen features a simple touchscreen that controls both the wrapping and weighing cycles and requires only one operator to complete the entire packing operation - a process that sees one pack completed every two seconds, a 100% improvement on the previous manual operation.

Avery has also worked with Belgian multiple retailer, Lion Delhaize with the WA series as the firm looked to improve productivity, enhance efficiency and increase customer appeal for its rear-of-store packed fresh meat. "Across the store network, 80 WA machines are integrated into the central back office system, which allows PLU (price look-up) files and traceability information to be updated automatically," says Williams. "If packs become damaged in the display cabinet, Delhaize likes to repack the meat to improve customer appeal and avoid product shrinkage. The bottom label includes the lot number within the bar code. Once scanned, this enables the full traceability information to be recalled and the sell-by date to be reset, without needing the original batch information."

Companies seem to be adapting labelling systems more quickly than the political establishment can draw up legislation. It could take the EU another year to finally deliver an answer to the country-of-origin debate, but labelling equipment firms seem unfazed by future rulings, as they rapidly meet the demands of their clients to run their businesses. The consumers, it seems, will be kept in the dark for a little longer.

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