The 2013 horse meat scandal dealt a heavy blow to trust in the food industry and its effects continue to be felt even now (just recently, two businessmen were jailed for their part in attempting to pass off horsemeat as beef). The scandal not only forced regulators to tighten their procedures but has dramatically increased the value that consumers place on origin labels.

According to Research by Professor Fraser and Dr Mohamud Hussein from Agribusiness Solutions Hub, UK consumers are willing to pay roughly £2/kg more for meat products with a British origin label than those with no country of origin information. Beef products in particular, no doubt due to their specific connection to the horse meat scandal, have seen a rise in country of origin label value. With retailers seeing opportunity in providing such labelling, the question is whether such a financial incentive is enough or is further regulation required?

British producers: held to a higher standard

According to Mintel’s Unprocessed Poultry and Red Meat – UK – October 2016 report, UK consumers tend to view British producers as adhering to higher food safety standards than overseas producers. 68% of those surveyed said they better trusted British standards and 66% felt that British producers have higher standards of animal welfare.

Furthermore, the report found that 60% of UK adults say they try to buy British food whenever they can and a similar number are willing to spend more on produce that guarantees fair pay for farmers.  In response, retailers are more than willing to cater to this push for local produce and have been voluntarily increasing the amount of origin labelling on their products.

Given that regulation was naturally stepped up after the scandal emerged, with the Food Standards Agency implementing multiple broad ranging tests of meat products and spreading sampling and analysis to a variety of retailers, it is perhaps enough to trust in this financial incentive. Across the globe, the general push for transparency and healthier options has organically led to labelling showing more information about food and its constituent ingredients.

It would appear that, as long as there is consumer interest towards such labelling being provided, it is likely that retailers will have sufficient motivation to cover for anything that may slip by regulation. Given how widespread the movement is, it seems currently unlikely that any sort of mandatory labelling is required.

Labelling laws: a global movement

 The movement is not limited to the UK either, with a survey by the Consumer Federation of America finding earlier this year that 89% of Americans are strongly or somewhat in favour of requirements for food sellers to indicate country of origin on food labels. An in Australia, new country of origin labelling laws are to be introduced in July of next year that aim to not only clarify the extent to which foodstuffs originate in Australia but to leverage significant fines against non-compliant producers.

Within Europe, France led the move towards country of origin labelling and has since been followed by countries such as Italy and Portugal. In Italy specifically, the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole has stated that over 80% of Italians consider it important to know the origin of raw materials due to food safety standard concerns.

Moreover, Carlo Calenda, the Minister of Economic Development, stated that: “Italy has decided to make this historic step without waiting for Brussels”, adding that the “EU has shown an unacceptable hesitancy on this issue.”

With the horsemeat scandal having affected countries across Europe, and a more general consumer demand for transparency across the world, it should be no surprise that governments are seeking to counter the complexity of supply chains with more stringent regulation.  As consumers and legislators seem to form a united front, what opposition could there be to the origin label movement?

Gastronationalism: paying a premium

Running counter to the arguments for, there are those who claim that the country of origin label movement is being used to undermine markets with a form of gastronationalism. Belgium has taken up protest against the French origin label movement in particular, documenting the way in which origin labels have allowed local farmers to flourish but have impacted Belgian companies looking to export meat and dairy to France.

“These figures of the sector show that the internal market is under pressure because of this national initiative,” the government said. “By comparison, the export of dairy from Belgium to similar markets (Germany and the Netherlands …) remained stable over the same period,” it added.

Belgium’s complaints, which has already been taken to a meeting of EU farm ministers, has a Europe specific element in that it argues the single market is being undermined by the French push to buy local, but it is representative of a broader concern. With a seeming majority of consumers willing to pay a premium for local produce, will producers be slowly forced to limit the sale of products to their country of origin alone?

According to Mintel’s Unprocessed Poultry and Red Meat – UK – October 2016 report, probably not. While 60% of UK adults say they try to buy British whenever they can, “only 38% of meat/poultry/game buyers say that British origins would make them buy one product over another.” Although the Belgium complaint holds genuine weight, it would appear that, at least in the UK, exporters can feel safe in the knowledge that the stated consumer preference for buying local is not backed up by enough action to cause any real concern.