Research on 'country of origin' labelling published

14 Jan 2010 01:57 PM

The Food Standards Agency has published new research about country of origin labelling.

The Agency commissioned a package of research to find out more about how people understand and use food labels, including ‘country of origin’ labels. The results will both improve the information we have on this subject and also help to inform discussions about a European proposal on food labelling.

The study consisted of five separate pieces of research that have been pulled together into one report. A range of methods were used to investigate consumer attitudes, including questionnaires, group discussions and innovative eye-tracking technology that looks at people’s behaviour in real life situations.

Key findings included:

  • there is awareness of 'origin labelling', but it is not a main concern for consumers when shopping
  • when asked on which foods they would like to see origin labelling, people most frequently mentioned meat and meat products
  • price and food safety information on labels were considered by consumers to be, on the whole, more important than country of origin labelling
  • some consumers are willing to pay a small amount more if the origin of their food is important to them
  • consumers are confused about whether ‘country of origin’ refers to where animals are born, raised or slaughtered or whether this refers to where a food product has been produced
  • 78% of meat and meat products now carry a country of origin statement, compared with 69% in 2005
  • 44% of meat products now give the origin of meat ingredients – this has more than doubled since 2005 when only 19% of products gave this information

Tim Smith, Chief Executive of the FSA, said: 'This research shows that even though "country of origin" isn’t a top priority for consumers, confusion remains over what "Produced in the UK" actually means.

'The issue is not about more origin labelling but the need for greater clarity on the labels on some of our most popular foods.

'European labelling rules being proposed will require businesses that make origin claims to provide further information, so that people will know where their food actually comes from, not just where it was processed.

'We support this approach as it effectively strengthens and gives legal backing to key elements of the existing FSA voluntary labelling guidance. We will use the results of this research to inform our discussions in Brussels.

'In the meantime, we believe that the willingness of food businesses to take account of our guidance in their labelling practices has improved the information available to consumers and we will continue to encourage uptake and, in discussion with food businesses, identify any barriers to providing this information.'

Background

Food labelling rules are developed in Europe and are currently under review. Under present European rules, foods such as beef, and certain fruit and vegetables, must have labels saying what country they have come from. But most foods (including ham, pies, sausages and ready meals) only need to include this information if not giving it would be misleading.

These rules can be confusing for consumers, who generally associate 'origin labelling' with where the ingredients have come from rather than where the food was made. Food that has undergone a substantial change, such as turning pork into sausages, can be labelled as ‘produced in the UK’, even though the pig may have been born, reared or slaughtered in another country. The Agency has guidance in place (see link below) to improve the clarity of information available to consumers. This FSA best practice guidance suggests that products that make a country of origin claim should also include information about where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered.

A new European Food Information Regulation is being developed to promote clear and consistent food labels to help consumers make appropriate and informed choices.