Europe is headed toward a continent-wide election — and to promote the event, voters are being told the new Parliament will decide how food is labeled.
We turned the corner and there were two giant chickens. Not feathered birds, mind you. But two plucked and glistening whole chickens wrapped in clear wrap, just like you’d see in the grocery — only these packages stood as tall as a semi-truck.
The only difference between the two packages was that one had been covered with nutritional labels while the other was bare.
We encountered the humongous whole fryers two weeks ago in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. At first, we assumed the Glad-wrapped birds were sculpture. (Those crazy Europeans!) Only later did we learn that the packaged fryers were, in fact, advertisements for the June 4 elections for a new European Parliament.
The message was that one of the major issues to be decided by the new members of Parliament will be the kind of labels on foods sold throughout the European Union. Do you want your chicken with or without nutritional labels? The two chickens were meant to tell voters that the new European Parliament will have new powers, including what labels are placed on a fresh chicken. That’s why the June 4 election is so important.
The giant birds were also a reminder that food labels have become a political issue just about everywhere. Earlier this month, for example, the Canadian government began the process of challenging U.S. labeling regulations that require most foods to show the country where they were produced. On the other side of the globe, meat producers in New Zealand are pushing their government to adopt “mandatory country of origin labeling,” nicknamed MccoOL in that country. Already, every apple grown in New Zealand has a MccoOL-like label.
The new Parliament will confront a European food labeling controversy that looks a lot like a U.S. food labeling controversy. Europe currently has no country of origin labeling requirement. Food growers want such a requirement, just like in the U.S.. Those packaging or selling foods oppose country of origin labeling — again, just like here.
The United Kingdom’s National Farmers Union is pressing the new Parliament to adopt “clear country of origin labeling…Recent research commissioned by the NFU highlighted that 74% of food shoppers2 support the listing of the country of origin on the pack. Mandatory country of origin labelling on all fresh and semi processed foods is therefore vital to ensure consumers are not being misled.”
The European Commission, however, has not favored mandatory country of origin labeling. In a report to be released this week, according to the Yorkshire Post, the Commission reports that it found strong opposition from European food processors to any U.S.-like COOL requirement.
“Processors opposed (country of origin labels) almost unanimously, citing the difficulties of traceability and costs,” the report found. “They also claimed the consumer was not interested in the origin of raw materials for processed foods.”
The report does recommend other changes in food labeling. The European Commission report wants a standard food label that would be used across the continent. But this kind of standardized label has been resisted around the EU.
The British Food Standards Agency favors a “traffic light” label. (See the sample on this page.) Red means the food has high levels of far or sugar. Green would indicate low levels of fattening ingredients. Food producers object to this kind of label, arguing that it “demonises” some foods.
There is currently a “wide disparity” in the kind of information placed on labels on food sold in the EU, according to a fact sheet put out by the European Commission. The European Commission has set out a lengthy proposal on food packaging, requiring the kind of information each product must bear on its label. (For the full proposal, go here.)The Commission is NOT recommending that the label include a country of origin. Providing that information would remain voluntary, according to this proposal. Foods imported to the EU would have to bear an EU-approved label.
Finally, should the new labeling system be adopted, food producers would have three years to alter their labels. Enterprises with fewer than 10 employees would have five years to produce the new labels.
Europe is running behind the U.S. in labeling, especially the labels that make the most difference to farm producers — those showing where the food originated. What happens with labeling, however, will be decided by the new (and newly empowered) Parliament, after the June 4 election.
To stir interest in the election, the EU placed the packaged chickens in a number of European cities. In Birmingham, England, vandals ripped up the plastic wrapping on the birds during the first night after the sculptures appeared in the Victoria Square.
The packages we saw in Brno were slightly tattered, but still drawing interest — more interest, perhaps, than the election itself.