Origin of meat: the very discreet end of mandatory labeling

Is a veil of opacity falling on the shelves of our supermarkets? Cordons-bleus, raw hams, canned cassoulets, pizzas, pre-packaged ham sandwiches… In short, all processed products have been freed from one constraint since the beginning of the year: that of indicating the origin of the meat they contain.

This obligation of transparency lasted five years. It was introduced in early 2017, shortly after the famous horsemeat lasagna affair. At the time, this large-scale fraud had revealed the gray areas of certain supply circuits for the agri-food industry: after passing through the hands of a Dutch trader, Romanian horses had been resold like beef … The falsification had affected Findus brand lasagna but also, we remember less, dozens of other product references (couscous, moussaka, shepherd’s pie, ravioli, etc.) from major brands such as those from distributors.

Consumers and breeders deplore this regulatory setback

The mention of origin is now the cost of unfavorable European regulations. It was only in force in France on an “experimental” basis. And it is the experiment authorized by Brussels which ended on the sly on December 31st. However, it benefited from the support of consumer associations and breeders alike. “Consumers are thirsty for transparency on the way processed foods are made, both on their recipe and on the origin of the ingredients”, assures Olivier Andrault, food mission manager at UFC-Que Choisir. The representatives of the various sectors (beef, pork, poultry) contacted by L’Express also deplore this regulatory setback.

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And for good reason… Masking the origin again could encourage the use of imported meat in prepared meals. However, if French meat is very dominant in the raw meat shelves, where the display of origin has been imposed for a long time (which will not change), the situation is less favorable for processed products. And the trend could increase.

For pork, this is what Anne Richard, director of Inaporc, the sector’s inter-professional organization fears: “From the moment no information must be given to the consumer, manufacturers will be tempted to go and get the meat where it is cheaper, so not in France.”

The risk of seeing meat imports increase

Before the shock caused by the war in Ukraine, French breeders were worried about the place taken by imports, often from countries whose standards of quality or animal welfare are lower. Those of pork increased by 10% in 2021 – notably Spanish pork, which is more competitive, imported to make hams. Those of chicken more than 18%. “Brazilian chicken fillet is half the price of standard French chicken fillet,” notes Yann Nédélec, director of the meat poultry interprofession. Who does not think that the agri-food industry will massively turn away from French poultry. All meats combined, the choice of a hexagonal ingredient and its enhancement by recognizable logos (French poultry, French pork, French beef) remains an effective argument to seduce consumers.

In fact, for now, you can’t find lasagna (or other dishes) with meat of unknown origin in supermarkets. In any case, not yet… Because changing the label (to conceal the origin), or the recipe (to replace French meat with imported meat) takes time.

Weak legal bases

This announced end of transparency for meat products is due, in part, to the action of a producer… of milk! In the spring of 2021, the Lactalis group obtained in court the cancellation of the similar system applying to dairy products. Applying European regulations, the courts have found it illegal to impose origin marking, except to prove a link between the properties of the ingredient and its origin. A real headache. The decision did not concern meat. But she convinced the French government not to ask for the extension of the experiment, when it had done so twice in the past. The legal bases were too weakened. “It was risky to open this front with the Commission, it was indicated to the Ministry of Agriculture before the presidential election.” In Brussels, indeed, the tide seems to be turning. Highlighting the origin of products has often been suspected of hindering the free movement of goods. In any case, the subject is on the menu of the draft revision of the regulation on consumer information (INCO regulation), which is currently being prepared.

The opportunity to progress in terms of transparency … and consistency, hopes the UFC-Que Choisir association: “Currently, European regulations require the origin of a piece of raw meat to be indicated, but as soon as the “we add a little oil to make a carpaccio, the obligation disappears. It’s grotesque!”, says Olivier Andrault, food project manager.

Breeders also hope that the original display in restaurants and canteens will be made permanent at the same time. In force for beef for twenty years, the obligation was extended this year (since March 1) to pork, poultry, lamb, etc. But here too, the device is experimental…

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The Commission must publish its reform proposal by the end of 2022. But before its final adoption and entry into force, it could take several years. In the meantime, in supermarkets, you will have to keep your eyes open if you prefer French meat products…


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