Food labelling and country of origin – does it matter?


Food labelling and more specifically country of origin labelling has become an increasingly sensitive issue in Europe as it presents a challenge for the European internal market and rules on free movement of goods.

In Brussels there has lately been a lot of talk about Italy's introduction of country of origin labelling for pasta. Why is Italy doing this?

Trade Policy Adviser Cyrille Hugon.- Food labelling and more specifically country of origin labelling has become an increasingly sensitive issue in Europe as it presents a challenge for the European internal market and rules on free movement of goods.

- On the one hand, origin labelling has developed a response to the desire expressed by consumers to know where the food they buy comes from. This is partly a reaction to recent food crises such as the mad cow disease or the horse meat scandal. We have noted, at the National Board of trade, a trend among Member States to propose such rules.

- On the other hand, origin labelling runs the risk of fragmenting the internal market and impact negatively the free movement of goods within Europe as it can nudge consumers towards national products at the detriment of other products.

- On August 21, Italy adopted two new origin labelling requirements for pasta and rice. According to the decrees, all packs of pasta and rice sold in Italy will have to include labels of origin and rice showing where the produce (in particular durum wheat) was grown. Food makers have 18 months to adapt to the new rules and set new labels.

- Projects for the two decrees were notified in May by Italy, and were discussed by all Member States in June in a consultative Committee of the European Commission. Italy presented justifications based on a range of considerations such as consumer protection. During the discussions, a large number of Members States expressed concerns concerning this proposal. In spite of the concerns, Italy adopted the two decrees sparking a heated debate in Europe and possibly making way for a legal challenge.

Is it legal?

- Labelling rules for food products have recently been overhauled in Europe and partially harmonised by Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. However, Member States retain the possibility to adopt additional mandatory particulars if justified on grounds of protection of public health, protection of consumers, prevention of fraud or protection of intellectual property rights, indications of provenance, registered designations of origin and prevention of unfair competition.

- This regulation thus provides for a notification procedure designed to inform other Member States and present justifications. The proposal may only be adopted if the European commission does not issue a negative opinion. The notification procedure is unfortunately not as transparent as other procedures for the notification of national technical rules and documents cannot always be consulted, in particular by private parties.

- So yes, it is possible to have specific origin labelling requirements. However such requirements must be justified and must not, in any case, restrict the free movement of goods in Europe.

- It should be noted that similar mandatory country of origin labelling, in particular concerning milk and dairy products, have recently been approved by the European Commission, albeit on a trial basis (two year period).

How can this affect other producers?

- The main risk, as we see it, is that when mandatory country of origin labelling is in place, demand in that Member State will increasingly concentrate on products from domestic origin, at the detriment of products from other countries. This could thus restrict the free movement of goods in Europe and thus be in breach of treaty provisions.

- Our opinion at the National Board of trade is that country of origin labelling rules that go over harmonised rules are difficult to justify on the grounds of consumer protection and should in principle be on a voluntary basis.

The National Board of Trade is doing an analysis on this topic. What are you lookinng into and why?

- As an authority with a mission to promote an open and free trade with transparent rules, we are indeed looking into whether, in a context of growing antitrade rhetoric and rise in protectionist measures on an international level, similar trends exist in Europe.

- We are looking in particular to specific national technical rules that Member States must notify before they adopt such measures. Some of them may have a protectionist intent or effect.

- In this context, we have noted a growing trend for labelling requirements in particular in the food sector. This raises concern regarding the impact of such mandatory requirements on the free movement of goods and the justification of such requirements. From a procedural point of view, the recourse to the notification procedure under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 raises questions in terms of transparency and level of scrutiny.

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