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Where does my food come from?

Article on traceability and the regulations governing this aspect of labeling.
Flat Pasta Noodle With Green Sauce Dish and Cherry Tomato on Top
© EIT Food

The EU Food Information to Consumers (FIC) regulation states that food information should not be misleading, and that it should be clear, accurate and easy to understand [1]. In this Step we’ll look at the ‘origin’ requirements in a bit more detail. Let’s clarify some key terms relating to the origin of a food according to the FIC.

  • Country of origin: where the goods were wholly obtained or produced or, if produced in more than one country, where they last underwent substantial change.

  • Place of provenance: any place where a food is indicated to come from but is not the country of origin. The place could be a town, region or group of countries where the food is indicated to come from, or any geographical area where at least one of the production steps took place.

There are three categories of products that require origin labelling

1) Those where failure to do so may mislead customers

For most food products, specifying their origin on the label is voluntary. Country of origin or place of provenance is only required when failure to provide it might mislead you as a consumer as to the true country of origin of the product [2]. For instance, a product called ‘Greek style yogurt’ implies that the product is from Greece. But if the yogurt’s not from Greece, then the true origin would need to be stated on the pack (eg, ‘Produced in the UK’). Labels or packaging can be misleading if they include pictures, maps, flags, colours or combine the product’s name with a geographical reference [2]. Be aware that the name and address of the company given on the label is actually the food business operator taking responsibility for the food (a retailer for example) rather than the food producer [1].

Another key term under FIC labelling regulations is the ‘primary ingredient’. As we saw in the previous Step, a primary ingredient is an ingredient or ingredients that represent more than 50% of the food product, or which is usually associated with the name of the food.

Let’s have a look at the label below. Why does this label give both countries of origin?

Please note: this examplar label has been created for this course.

Since the primary ingredient (cheese) does not come from the place indicated as the origin of the food (UK), the origin of the cheese must be stated.

There’s a further implementing regulation that specifies how to make the origin of the primary ingredient clear [3]: where the origin is provided, and where this differs from the origin of the food’s primary ingredient, the label must provide:

  • the origin of the primary ingredient (country of origin/place of provenance)


  • an indication that the origin of the primary ingredient is different from the origin of the food. This could be by specifying ‘non-EU’ or ‘EU and non-EU’ origin, or ‘(name of the primary ingredient) does/does not originate from (the country of origin/place of provenance)’.

As we learned from the tomato case study in the previous Step, the origin is only required if its absence might mislead the customer as to the actual origin; and the origin can be taken as the last place the food underwent substantial change.

2) Products where origin information is necessary

As mentioned in the olive oil case study, indicating the country of origin is currently obligatory for some foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, olive oil, fish and unprocessed meats [4]. As a consequence of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic, an indication of origin (place of birth, rearing and slaughter) has been mandatory for beef and beef products since 1 January 2002 [5]. The measures were introduced to ensure that all beef products were BSE-free regardless of the length of their supply chains. Since then, this regulation has been extended to include unprocessed pork, lamb, goat and poultry – fresh, chilled or frozen [6]. Now all these meats must be labelled with the country of birth (for beef only), country of rearing and slaughter as well as traceability information such as codes for processing plants [5, 6]. Food business are required to record and communicate traceability information all along the food chain.

Please note: this examplar label has been created for this course.

3) Regional specialities that need protecting

The final category of products that must be labelled with their origins are those marketed under the EU ‘protected names scheme’ [7, 8]. There are three protection marks used in the EU:

  • Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) – regional foods that have a specific quality that can be attributed to a region; eg, Gouda and Edam cheeses (Netherlands), Finocchiona (Italy), Pan Gallego (Spain), Scottish Wild Venison (Scotland), and Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Italy).

  • Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – regional foods where production locations need to be protected; eg Cornish Clotted Cream (UK), Parma Ham (Italy), Pimenton de Murcia (Spain)

  • Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) – regional foods where the tradition of the manufacturing process need to be protected, rather than the origin; eg, Mozzarella (Italy), Pizza Napoletana (Italy), Jamon Serrano (Spain); Traditional Bramley Apple Pie Filling (UK).

Protection marks from DEFRA

PDO and PGI are similar designations, the main difference is how strong is the link to the geographical location. For a food to have a Protected Designation of Origin, there is a strong link to the geographical region as the food needs to be produced, processed, and prepared within a geographical location and possessing qualities or characteristics exclusive to that specific geographical location. For example, Roquefort cheese must be made with milk from Lacaune or black breeds of sheep, matured in natural caves near Roquefort in Aveyron France, using spores of Penicillium roqueforti which grow in these caves. Whereas at a Protected Geographical Indication, the link is not as strong, because only at least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation must occur within that geographical location. Furthermore, it must possess a specific quality or reputation or characteristic attributable to the geographical location, eg. Edam cheese.

You can find more examples of foods protected in these ways at the Register eAmbrosia – the EU geographical indications register[9]

The next Step will demonstrate why knowing where your food comes from is so important.

© EIT Food
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Understanding Food Labels

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