When you buy a tomato in a German supermarket, the sign above it tells you where it came from. But if you buy a can of peeled tomatoes in the same store, you can't determine where the tomatoes were grown. Unlike suppliers of fresh produce, producers of so-called processed food products in the European Union are not required to specify the country of origin. The term "processed" applies to all cooked and pureed products, and even to all frozen products.
In theory, one could call the manufacturer and ask where its canned tomatoes come from. A manufacturer's contact information must be included on every product so that producers can ensure that the ingredients of their products are traceable, at least according to European Union regulations. But even if a consumer does take the trouble to call, he or she isn't always likely to get much information -- because information is precisely what some companies are reluctant to hand out. Besides, the words "produced for discounter XY" are generally all the information that's required.
Labels Would 'Only Confuse'
The term "place of origin" is also open to broad interpretation. Under current regulations, tomato juice that comes from Spanish tomatoes but is bottled in Germany can be labeled as "tomato juice from Germany."
German food producers, who for years have bristled at clearer labeling requirements, warned in a statement from their lobbying organization that labels indicating a food's origins would only confuse consumers.
Besides, they argued, detailed labeling would be much too complex. "A frozen pizza consists of various ingredients, some of which have to be bought fresh every day. This can't be reflected on labels on a daily basis," says Matthias Horst of the German Federation of Food Law and Food Science, the umbrella organization for the German food industry.
Of course, industry representatives know that a label that says "made with ingredients from China" isn't exactly good for sales. So far, however, they've had no reason to fear having to provide such information on their products. Attempts by consumer advocates in Berlin and Brussels to tighten labeling requirements have usually failed.
Last year, for example, the European Parliament adopted only a watered-down food labeling regulation. Under the original draft, products containing only one ingredient, such as canned tomatoes, also had to include country-of-origin information in their processed state. Instead, the new legislation only requires producers to provide information about the source of fresh meat. It also doesn't apply to processed animal products, such as yoghurt, ham and cold cuts.
Referring to the Brussels decision, the consumer organization Foodwatch wrote: "The food industry has had its way." Foodwatch is calling for more detailed food-labeling requirements. "If a package contains processed strawberries from China, that's what it should say," says spokesman Martin Rücker.
By December 2014, the EU intends to examine whether the current labeling rules should be expanded, a move that food producers and retailers continue to oppose.