Sometimes in the European parliament, an issue that seems on the face of it perfectly clear-cut turns out to be rather more complicated. On Wednesday we voted on “COOL” – country-of-origin labelling for meat in processed foods. Note that word “processed” – it comes up later.
Of course after the horsemeat and other scandals, consumers are quite rightly concerned to know where their food comes from. If you ask them, 90% plus will say they want labelling. And if you ask British farmers or the NFU, they’ll say the same – probably 100%.
So that’s easy then. Open-and-shut case. Please the voters and the farmers in one go.
But sadly it’s more complicated than that, and the fly in the ointment is that word “processed”. Of course if we’re dealing with a primary meat product – steak from Argentina, or bacon from Denmark, or a chicken from Thailand – then it can and should be labelled with the country-of-origin.
But processed foods are different. Let’s take a sausage. It may have more than one type of meat – beef and pork, say, perhaps with some chicken as a filler. If it’s a high-quality, high price product, the maker may well buy consistently from familiar sources, and labelling might be practical. But for a cheaper product, the company’s buyer may well be watching the market and picking prices on a daily basis, getting a consignment of beef from Romania today and Somerset tomorrow and Bolivia next week. And he’ll be making similar decisions on other days and other meats.
So in any one sausage on any one day, the meat used may come from many places – and will probably be different tomorrow. The effect of this COOL legislation will be twofold:
First, merely adding a new labelling process involves more administration and cost (and inevitably more wasted packaging). But secondly, it may be entirely impractical to continue buying best value on the day, so the average cost of the meat in the sausage will go up as well. It’s a double whammy for prices.
And who suffers? The poor. The old. The single mum on welfare struggling to feed the children. These people may well be relying on those low-cost sausages to provide a square meal, and we’ve deliberately chosen to make them more expensive – and for some, unaffordable. It’s back to bread and dripping.
This is a classic case where we should let the market decide. If you want sausages with meat from a declared source, there will be supermarkets who will offer just that – at a price. Or you could go to your high-street butcher, who will probably be able to tell you which field the beef was raised on. But if price is your first criterion, and you’re less concerned about country of origin, that option should still be available. We’ve voted in parliament to take that choice away. We’re almost literally taking food out of the mouths of the poor.
So it was a tough decision. Frankly, I wanted to vote against the whole thing. But in a political party it is important to stick together as far as possible, and colleagues felt that the opinions of voters and farmers were the key factor, even though the voters may not have been in a position to think through the implications. So I abstained.