What is needed on a label

By Janette Woodhouse, Editor
Monday, 12 January, 2009


When dioxins up to 200 times the legal levels were found on 10 pig farms in Ireland, alarm bells started ringing all over Europe. How could consumers ascertain if the salami on their pizza or the bacon in their quiche was made from Irish pork?

This is a classic example of why labelling information is so critical.

In Europe, a product’s country of origin is the place where it underwent its last significant process — so it is perfectly reasonable and legal for pepperoni to be labelled 'Made in Italy' even if the pork was born, raised and slaughtered in Ireland.

There is now a push for EU labels to indicate where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered but this comes with a multitude of problems, especially for ready meal manufacturers. Imagine trying to create labels that reflect the origins of all the ingredients used to produce a ready meal. It would be a logistical nightmare. Especially when you consider how often the source of one ingredient or another changes.

Consumers expect transparency in their purchases and seriously resent being misled but how much information can actually fit on labels in a manner that is legible and understandable?

This question should not obfuscate the food processor's need to maintain traceability. In the event of a food or beverage being contaminated it is essential that the product can be traced, identified and removed from sale. However, if accurate records are maintained a food processor should be able to use the batch number and use-by date to identify each product that should be removed from sale. The inclusion of country of origin labelling would not be needed for the consumer or processor to identify the contaminated product.

Ready meals present a special case with regard to country of origin labelling. Consumers buying meat and seafood are genuinely interested in the country of origin and this information does influence their purchase decisions. Equally, some ready meal purchasers may be interested if the principal ingredient is from a specific location — ‘Roast chicken with fresh Australian vegetables’ should contain vegetables grown in Australia and New Zealand lamb casserole should contain lamb born, raised and slaughtered in New Zealand — but are they really concerned about the provenance of the other ingredients as well? Personally, I think not.

Perhaps the solution should be that the information is in the public domain if consumers are interested. Maybe food processors could include this information on their websites for those consumers really interested in this level of detail.

Mind you, I suspect that consumers who are interested in this level of detail are unlikely to be regular purchasers of ready meals and so such websites would get very few hits.

As a slight aside, this reminds me of the Australian government’s GROCERYchoice website. I have yet to meet a single person who routinely checks this site and then uses this information to make shopping destination decisions.

Those who frequently purchase ready meals are likely to enjoy the range of choices and the convenience of this growing market and want to know the nutritional information that is already standard on such products. They would also like to know that any claim, including provenance, is accurate and that the food processor has maintained HACCP procedures during production and traceability in the event of a problem; but I do not think they are interested in the origin of every ingredient, nor are they interested in having the labels so clogged with information that they cannot find the information they find valuable.

 

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