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New obligations to declare the origin of food

A European Union Regulation has been applied since the beginning of April, seeking to give consumers more precise information on the origin of the main ingredients of packaged foods. Foodstuffs that were placed on the market or labelled before 1 April 2020 may nevertheless be sold under the old labelling until stocks are exhausted.

The new notification obligation applies when the country of origin of a food has been declared and the country of origin of the primary ingredient differs from the country of origin of the food as a whole. The origin or place of provenance of a food may be indicated by the customary designation “Made in …” or “Manufactured in …”, or by any other expression enabling a consumer to presume that the product originates in a particular country. The name and address of a producer, manufacturer or importer is nevertheless not considered to indicate the country of origin or place of provenance of the food. In addition to words, the origin of a food may be indicated by means of pictorials or symbols. These may include country flags or maps.

Established expressions, such as salade Niçoise, which are understood to refer to a recipe and not to the country of manufacture, are nevertheless excluded from the notification obligation. The use of protected geographical indications and registered trademarks also continues to be excluded from the scope of the Regulation, at least for the time being, with no obligation to notify arising from their presence on food packaging, even if the primary ingredient has a different country of origin.

The Regulation specifies expressions that must be used if the country of origin or place of provenance of the primary ingredient is not the same as the declared country of origin of the food. The options are either to indicate the country of origin or place of provenance of the primary ingredient, or to indicate that the primary ingredient does not come from the same country as the food, in which case there is no requirement to indicate its country of origin. There is no obligation to specify the country of origin or place of provenance of the primary ingredient at national level, but such expressions as “EU”, “non-EU” or “EU and non-EU” are acceptable. This facilitates package labelling when the country of origin of ingredients varies.

The primary ingredient means an ingredient or ingredients of a food that represent more than 50 per cent of that food, or which the consumer usually associates with the name of the food. The assessment with respect to the latter criterion will be made on a case-by-case basis for each food. The primary ingredient may also be a compound food such as jam. There may be more than one primary ingredient, whereas some foods do not have any primary ingredient at all. Operators must use their own judgement when considering what or which are the primary ingredients of each food. The primary ingredient is often specified in the name of the food, or may otherwise affect the consumer’s purchasing decision.

The European Commission and the Finnish Food Authority have published questions and answers to assist food business operators. Questions of interpretation will continue to arise and it is expected that the guidelines will also be updated several times.

While the reform has a good purpose, it may lead operators to no longer declare the country of origin or place of provenance of a food when it is not mandatory to do so. It accordingly remains to be seen whether the reform will ultimately lead to obtaining less information on the origin of foods in the future.

Kukka Tommila

Attorney-at-Law, partner, trademark attorney

+358 40 580 5101
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