If You Can’t Trust the Label, What Can You Trust? Part I

15 April 2013

Consumer trust is in short supply with yet another discovery of meat labelled as beef but containing horsemeat was recalled in the Netherlands last week. Both the horsemeat scandal in Europe and the less publicised but equally disturbing mislabelling of fish in Europe and the U.S., make it clear that what is on the label is not always what ends up on our plates. This leads Fairfood to ask, if you can’t trust the label, what can you trust?

Food labelling has a number of functions, the main one being to inform us what is or isn’t in the food we buy. This has numerous practical purposes, not the least of which is food safety. While horsemeat is not unsafe to eat and indeed in some cultures it is a common dish, it is distasteful to many. However, with the discovery of bute, a veterinary drug used for horses and dangerous to humans was found in food labelled as corned beef, the story becomes more chilling.

Food safety issues linked to fish mislabelling are equally worrying with the risk of contaminated fish being switched for a species considered safe for consumption and there have also been cases of new varieties, never before consumed, entering our food chain. In addition, mislabelling fish interferes with consumers’ ability to make informed choices in choosing sustainably caught species and supports a market for illegal fishing. Furthermore, unless the deception is uncovered, the consumer has no way of knowing they are being misled.

The core issue at the heart of these scandals is the stunning complexity of the food supply chain. This complexity makes traceability a real challenge. Raw materials can travel tens of thousands of kilometres and pass through a dizzying number of hands before being packaged and sold. Add to this the abundance of ready-made, processed meals which contain many ingredients from many different countries of origin and there is ample room for mistakes and abuses. Despite regulations and systems designed to follow products from the farm or fisherman’s hook to the supermarket shelf or restaurant table; it is clear there are still gaps in the effectiveness of this system. Investigators are looking into whether the recent mislabelling scandals are a result of incompetence or deliberate fraud. Neither result is likely to fully restore consumer trust which has been hit hard by these unsavoury revelations.

Trustworthy labelling of food products is serious business and Fairfood advocates for full transparency and accountability of all players throughout the food supply chain. Consumers are the final link in that chain and have the right to know what they are eating and serving their families. Aside from the obvious legal obligations, companies in the food industry have the responsibility to manage their supply chains in a way that respects consumer safety and trust.

Next week Part II of Fairfood’s Executive Director’s blog will look at the minefield of sustainability labelling and how some uncertified companies claim their products are what they’re not.