EU High Court Approves Country-of-Origin Labels for Food

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. (Courthouse News photo/Molly Quell)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — European Union countries can require origin labels on milk and other food products, with certain conditions, the EU’s top court held Thursday. 

French legislation requiring that food containing dairy label which country the milk originated from is in line with EU regulations, the European Court of Justice ruled in a case between the French government and multinational dairy corporation Lactalis. 

EU rules should be read as permitting countries to require “the mandatory indication of the country of origin or place of provenance of milk or milk used as an ingredient … where failure to include that indication might mislead the consumer,” the court wrote in its judgment. 

The French government introduced the country of origin labeling, or COOL, requirement in 2017, mandating that all prepackaged foods containing dairy or meat list on their labels the country where products were produced and processed. The labeling requirement applied to products that contained 8% meat and 50% milk. 

It further required that only those products containing 100% meat or dairy produced in France to be labeled a product of France. 

The French Council of State referred the case to the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice to clarify if such product labeling requirements violated EU market harmonization rules, which set common standards for products sold across the 27-member political and economic union. 

The five-judge panel found that the EU’s 2011 regulation on food information to consumers “does not preclude member states from adopting measures imposing additional mandatory information.” 

However, such national regulations must consider “the importance of the association that the majority of consumers may make between certain qualities of the food and its origin or provenance,” the ruling states. In other words, there must be a proven link between the quality of the food and its origin country to require such a label. 

French consumer groups had been pushing for the regulation for years following the 2013 horse meat scandal, in which prepackaged food in several European countries was found to be made from horse meat rather than beef or pork, as the packaging implied. Food manufacturers have pushed back, arguing the labeling is costly and confusing for consumers. 

The French regulation started as a two-year-trial but was recently extended until the end of 2021. Paris also expanded the food products covered by the rules to include honey and cocoa. 

The EU updated its own COOL regulations this year, now requiring companies to indicate the origin of a food’s “primary ingredient” rather than where the food is prepared or packaged, as was required by the previous rules. 

The case now returns to the Council of State in France for a final decision. 

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