18 February 2000

Only 10% pick food by country of origin

By Alistair Driver

JUST one in 10 shoppers take into account the country of origin when deciding whether or not to buy a particular food product, according to two independent surveys funded by MAFF.

Of much greater significance to consumers is quality, taken into account by 76%, and price, considered by 73%. The surveys, commissioned as part of MAFFs better labelling initiative, also show four in 10 people never look at food labels to discover country of origin.

But the results did show that consumers wanted more and clearer information on food labelling. Half the respondents expressed a wish for more information, while three-quarters said they found terms like "fresh", "natural" and "pure" misleading. Junior farm minister Baroness Hayman, who launched the labelling initiative, said the survey showed how important labels were.

The government recently published new guidelines on labelling of foodstuffs with the aim of making country of origin "clear and unambiguous". This followed concerted pressure from farming, particularly pig producers who claimed consumers were being duped by UK product labels on imported pigmeat. Under EU law food can be labelled as British if it has been processed here even if the ingredients originate elsewhere in the EU.

People are clearly sceptical of country of origin labelling. When asked if ham labelled "produce of Britain" is made of British pork, 43% though it was and 41% thought it was not. Half believe English butter is made of English ingredients and a quarter do not.

Over 80% of respondents agreed they would feel misled if they bought bacon or sausages labelled "Produce of Britain" and found it had been made with imported goods.

An NFU spokesman said the revelation that only one in 10 people take country of origin into account in their purchases shows more work needs to be done to persuade people to buy British. "We recognise that we must go beyond patriotism and emphasise the quality and welfare of British produce," he said. The NFU is campaigning for the introduction of a kitemark for British quality produce.

The labelling campaign is also being backed in a Private Members Bill calling for country of origin labelling to be included for every major ingredient on every food product, which will receive its second reading on Mar 3.

The Bill, proposed by Conservative MP Stephen OBrien, was published last week with cross-party backing, and the support of the Consumers Association.

Mr OBrien said it was designed to give the British consumer a real choice when buying food. &#42