National identity

When is British pork not British pork? When it's a loin of bacon that's been farmed and processed overseas, but thanks to a light curing in England, Wales or Scotland is able to have a label attached to it saying 'British'.

Sourcing overseas from a number of suppliers is par for the course for many manufacturers and few would argue against ending this practice. However, it is whether it is right for people to take advantage of the public's increasing desire for British or local products and the growing reputation of pig welfare in the UK by labelling meat as 'British' that is barely such. Europe does not think so, and MEPs last week voted to tighten up country of origin labelling, with the places in which meat is born, reared and processed planned to be required labelling practice.




Mick Sloyan, BPEX chief executive, heads up the Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force. He says the upcoming regulation is a justification of the work he has been putting in getting the industry to sign up to voluntary pig labelling for the past 18 months. "We deliberately ran our labelling code along the lines of what Europe might propose and the new proposals looks great on paper," he says.

"If you're selling a product and you make some form of claim for it, either directly, or through imagery: say a pack of sausages with red, white and blue paper wrapping or the, Queen's warrant on a pack, then there's a duty on manufacturers to say where it comes from. If you source from within Britain you can say it, but if you shop around to get cheapest meat then you should have to say it too."

So we are talking honesty about the difference between top end and lower grade produce. Beef, veal, fish, shellfish, most fresh fruit and vegetables and poultry have to be labelled with a country of origin label if they come from outside the EU, but this new regulation will potentially extend to everything else, and for those products from within the EU too.

"That's not what we have an issue with, however," says Julian Hunt, director of communications of the Food & Drink Federation. "We're not concerned about single ingredient products. It's products that contain meat, such as ready meals for them it's going to be a bureaucratic nightmare. Companies might source their meat from the UK and Ireland in the first place, but then subject to seasonal variations will look to Europe for supplies as well," he says. "Being forced to print off a new label every time you change the recipe that will have major financial implications and present a logistical nightmare for many companies."

The result of this, according to Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, is that it will "tie people into buying from a particular supplier at a particular price. Once you have a label you want to stick to it and it will be harder to keep costs down by sourcing from abroad."


Turn the clock back


Cheney accepts the fact that meat cuts be labelled with country of origin. "The argument has moved on in the meat industry, although where a product comes from is not actually people's primary concern. Nutrition is far more important. However, overall country of origin labelling has definite protectionist overtones. It's not in the spirit of the free market and is ultimately anti-competitive."

Although many manufacturers are not going to shout about it, there are a number that would like to turn the clock back and remove the need for country of origin or even EU labelling. But they should be heartened by the fact that it will be three to five years before any law over labelling comes into force.

Furthermore, a 'regulatory impact assessment' also looks likely in Europe. It means that MEPs will look again at the effect at labelling for products that use ingredients from different countries. This will provide the chance for lobbying from the major food companies to swing into action once again after managing to overturn plans by the EU for traffic light labelling for fats, salts and sugars last week. There is surely little they would feel they cannot do after that one: a member of the European Parliament said: "I've never seen pressure like it in the history of my time at the Parliament. The lobbying on the part of the manufacturers was extraordinary." The prospect of a label looking like the scoreboard at the Eurovision Song Contest should be motivation enough for the next fight.

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