Origin still a mystery for some food items

Consumers in Finland are becoming increasingly aware of the origin of the food they’re putting on the dinner table. In spite of tighter EU regulations calling for precise listing of raw ingredients and place of origin, current laws and regulations don’t cover all food items.

EU inspectors have become especially vigilant over the labelling of meat products. Image: Kia-Frega Tyynismaa / YLE

At the beginning of April tighter regulations came into force compelling producers to provide information about the country of origin on meat product labels. However in some cases consumers are still having a hard time determining the origin of the ingredients used in some foodstuffs.

EU regulators have tightened the rules regarding the labelling of meat products in the wake of several recent scandals over not only the nature of the packaged products, but also their origin.

"The origins of pork, lamb, goat and poultry must be precisely spelt out nowadays. The regulations came into force in April this year. It was already necessary to indicate the origin of beef," said inspector general Tuulikki Lehto of the food safety authority Evira.

EU regulators have also introduced compulsory labelling requirements for other products such as fish, honey, fruit, vegetables and olive oil. However the current strict rules don’t apply to products that can easily lead consumers astray because of their branding.

If 'Granny’s traditional macaroni casserole from Pihtipudas' had been prepared at a factory in Poland instead of in Finland, it wouldn’t pass muster from inspectors without a label clearly showing the country of origin, Lehto explained.

"If the label suggests that the product has been prepared from a location that is different, then there would be good reason to clearly indicate its origin for the benefit of consumers," she added.

Industrial kitchen meals under scrutiny

Consumers often find it particularly difficult to determine where the ingredients in meals made in industrial kitchens may come from. There may be upwards of 10 countries involved in the production chain.

Moreover current regulations don’t require the product to list the origin of the meals’ primary ingredients - the ingredients which form more than 50 percent of the product. But that may change this year.

"The EU Commission has been discussing the issue of listing the origin of primary ingredients for some time, but it’s not yet been reflected in the regulations. I hope that a decision will come this year," Lehto remarked.

Settling the issue would require agreement among all EU countries. However Lehto pointed out that one obstacle to adopting the requirement could be a change in raw material producers in the event that ingredients are no longer available in the same supplier countries.

Karoliina Öystilä, communications chief of the Finnish Food Workers Union said she favours labelling processed food with the origin of primary ingredients as well as the country in which they are produced. She said potential problems caused by more accurate labelling are not insurmountable, but are being exaggerated.

"Updating labels with information about ingredients or country of manufacture will of course create extra work, but it would better serve consumers and would benefit domestic food production. With the modern technology available changing product labels is not an impossible task," she observed.

Many food retailers and producers are already trying to provide more accurate information about the origin of foodstuffs than the regulations currently require. Evira’s Lehto called on consumers to contact food producers if they feel that food product labels are providing insufficient information.