At its plenary session on 20 February, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomed the instigators of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) “Eat Original. Unmask Your Food”, which calls on the European Commission to impose mandatory origin labelling for all food products in order to prevent fraud and guarantee consumers' right to information.
The ECI "Eat Original. Unmask Your Food" had collected 1.1 million signatures in all 28 Member States by 2 October 2019, the end of the collection period.
Paolo di Stefano, Head of the EU Liaison Office of Coldiretti, the main Italian Farmers' Organisation, which coordinated the initiative, said:
This was long awaited, and it proves that the EU citizens want to know what they are really eating. It also reflects a growing trend in some EU countries, such as France, Spain, Finland, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Lithuania, which are imposing country of origin labelling for a number of food products, so that consumers know the origin of the products and what are they made of when it comes to processed food.
The EESC is the only EU institution to feature successful (and almost successful) initiatives at its plenary sessions, demonstrating full support for citizens to be better represented in the processes of shaping and reshaping the European Union, said EESC President Luca Jahier.
This ECI is of particular interest to the EESC, which has set out its views on the subject in several opinions, strongly supporting clearer rules and better information for consumers, recommending greater transparency in labelling food origins.
The problem facing the EU is that, at this stage, origin labelling is only compulsory for certain foods: honey; olive oil; fresh fruit and vegetables; fish; beef and pig, sheep, goat and poultry meat. For all other foods origin labelling is voluntary, which leaves large information gaps when it comes to the origin of, for instance, meat products, milk, dairy products and single-ingredient products such as flour or sugar, to name but a few… Leaving the products unlabelled can have serious consequences for the single market and consumers' rights.
Preventing food fraud
In Europe, economically motivated adulteration of food is estimated to create damage of around EUR 8 to 12 billion per year, and this has increased over the last decades. Mandatory indication of origin on food labels helps prevent falsification and unfair commercial practices that damage the single market as well as national economies, as was the case with the horsemeat scandal in 2013.
Guaranteeing consumers’ right to information
EU citizens have the right to be protected and to receive accurate information about the food they choose to purchase. In order to make informed choices, consumers need to know where products are harvested and processed and the origin of ingredients, and be given more information about production and processing methods.
Those behind the initiative believe that this much-needed harmonised legislation will increase food safety and transparency throughout the food supply chain, as the system has been so clearly shown to be vulnerable without mandatory origin labelling in place.
The EESC opinion Promoting healthy and sustainable diets in the EU, adopted in February 2019, went even further, recommending broader food labelling, including environmental and social aspects.
In addition to the opinions the EESC engages closely with EU citizens' initiatives, holding a conference known as the ECI Day each year. This year, the ECI Day will be held on Tuesday 25 February under the heading Today and beyond. It will explore not just the current state of play of the European Citizens' Initiative but also its future in the context of societal changes and new deliberative approaches to policymaking.
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is an important instrument of participatory democracy in the EU, introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon. It allows one million citizens from at least a quarter of the EU Member States (i.e. seven Member States) to invite the European Commission to propose legislation in areas that fall within its remit.
Since the entry into force of the ECI Regulation in 2011, only five initiatives have been successfully submitted to the Commission (Right2Water, One of Us, Stop Vivisection, Ban Glyphosate and Minority SafePack).
As of January 2020, new rules apply to make the ECI more accessible, less bureaucratic and easier to use for organisers and supporters, while also ensuring more robust follow-up.