A huge loss of public trust followed, and while it was clear that criminal networks had successfully infiltrated our food systems, the public’s disappointment was firmly directed at supermarkets and government institutions.
Two months after news of the scandal broke, a survey conducted by Which? showed that consumer confidence in the food industry had fallen by a quarter, with 68% of the public feeling that the government wasn't giving adequate attention to enforcing labelling laws. Yet three years on, has anything actually changed? Have we become a nation more in tune with our food system; that demands to know what we eat and where it comes from, and that makes sure that what we eat is what it says on the label?
Food transparency is not a new issue for the WI. In 2010, a resolution was passed asking for greater clarity on country of origin labelling (COOL). Too often members were confronted with confusing origin labelling and were unable to make informed choices about the meat they were buying. At that time origin labelling for meat was not a mandatory requirement, and where it was detailed on labels, the origin could be given as the country where it underwent the last “substantial change”.
Since the WI kicked off its campaign there has been significant progress on COOL. In 2015, EU rules came into force which introduced the principle that unprocessed sheep, goat, chicken and pork meat products would be required to specify the country in which the animal was reared and slaughtered (this was already a requirement for beef, which also had to specify place of birth).
However, despite this progress, there is still a long way to go before clear country of origin labelling is the norm in UK supermarkets. The majority of the products contaminated in the horsemeat scandal were processed products, such as ready meals, meatballs and ‘beef’ burgers. But these processed meat products are still not required to display its country of origin. The WI wants to see COOL extended to all meat products. And not only because of traceability and transparency issues.
The WI’s campaign is about clarity and consumer choice. Shoppers need clear and accurate information to make informed choices about the foods they buy.
With British farmers struggling financially, enabling them to champion British meat which meets strict animal welfare and safety standards is vital. While premium products may champion British meat, value cuts and ready meals often contain cheaper imported meat. No one is arguing that these should be restricted, but clear country of origin labelling would encourage shoppers to acknowledge and question price differences, and then make better informed choices.
This week MEPs have an opportunity to vote on a resolution to extend COOL to all processed meat and dairy products. If passed, there will be an opportunity for the European Commission to consider this issue further.
The European Commission’s own research shows that consumers want clarity on the origin of processed meat products, but the Commission has argued that the cost of new labelling requirements is too high.
But the EU Environment Committee believes that extending COOL initially to lightly processed meat and dairy products such as cheese and sausages (which are the products consumers are most concerned about) would not be as costly and could present an important first step in extending COOL to all products.
The first recommendation of the Eliott Review commissioned by the government in the wake of the horse meat scandal was to put consumers first. Three years on, it feels like progress has slowed, and despite public concern about transparency and traceability in our food system, consumers are still in the dark.
While clear country of origin labelling won’t solve all the problems in our food system, it would go a long way in restoring public trust in our food system, allowing consumers to make informed choices about what they eat, and allowing farmers to compete on an even playing field.
The WI believes that next week’s resolution is an important step in ensuring that COOL is extended to include processed meat products and will be urging MEPs to support it.