Country of origin labelling issues

Country of origin labelling issues

Vegan Society of Canada News
January 20th 2023

Country of origin labelling continues to be a contentious issue at the public level as it pertains to animal exploitation. The narrative concerning the interconnectedness of animal exploitation has long sought to unify the rights of all animals not to be exploited. It is typical that people who self-identify as vegans tend to be more sympathetic to animal exploitation, however, there are still issues regarding the exploitation of animals in things like animal testing or labour practices and determining what is vegan certifiable.

The issue of animal exploitation is still lacking adequate consideration by the public and organizations who self-identify as vegan. We have discussed the veganic labelling issues in the past and have tried to bring more attention to the problem of disregarding animal working conditions when granting “certified vegan” status to products. Hopefully, by bringing country of origin laws and regulations into the spotlight, people and organizations who self-identify as vegan can begin to discuss how to address this blatant inconsistency.

Legislation in economically developed countries aimed at ensuring all products are correctly labelled with their country of origin is surprisingly recent. The European Union and the United States have only had Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements for certain products since 2015 and 2013 respectively, and not for all products. Australia is an example of a country that requires COOL for all packaged foods, and New Zealand is an example of a country where the supplier’s contact information must be labelled, but COOL is only voluntary. Under the USDA, processed items such as fruit cups and small businesses purchasing less than 230,000$ a year of produce are excluded from COOL requirements. Debates over COOL requirements are long-standing, with lobbyists trying to persuade federal lawmakers that they are a thinly disguised barrier on trade imports, and consumer rights groups insisting that such information should always be available to customers.

Currently, Canada does not require COOL for all prepackaged food products, in a way that consumers have come to understand the concept, as this labelling does not provide any safety information and there are only certain COOL requirements for other kinds of food products. Because the labelling only requires the name of the importer or manufacturer, we may see private labels in Canada claiming things like: "Imported by Loblaws'' or "Made for Walmart" along with an address for their business. If these statements are not misleading, they are certainly as close as possible to being useless.

Companies can make voluntary claims about the origin of a food, provided it is truthful and not misleading, such as prepackaged foods from England being labelled as “Made in England”, or a blueberry pie made with Canadian blueberries being labelled “Made with 100% Canadian Blueberries”. There seems to be an internal contradiction to the concept of voluntary COOL options in that there is always subjectivity in terms of what is true and not misleading.

Senators from farm states in the US have already identified one particular loophole; animals born and raised outside of the US can carry multiple labels from “all the countries in which the animals may have been born.” Twenty-eight senators and the Minnesota Farmers Union have noted that this was the opposite intent of COOL and how big packing industries are disgraceful in their attempt to manipulate and confuse information intended to benefit consumers. This loophole seemingly caused confusion for Kerry Foods customers in Ireland, sparking an Irish Farming Association-backed protest.

Many European organizations have stated concerns that origin labelling is not realistic because so many bulk agricultural commodities have multiple origins moving in a continuous process that is impacted by seasonal availability, weather, quality of raw materials, storage sourcing and processing. These potential hurdles could cause confusion and ultimately increase costs for consumers. Similar issues in the seafood industry have resulted in additional measures being taken to improve COOL’s effectiveness.

As a philosophy on the public scale, there has been much confusion over the concept of simultaneous concern for both human and non-human animals. Specifically, there has been a critique that vegans are less concerned with human animal exploitation than non-human animal exploitation, which is an issue modern vegans will have to address to advance the philosophy and end the exploitation of animals. As it stands, the moral basis for the rights of human animals stems in part from Kantian-inspired “autonomous agency”: rational agents should be able to coexist with others under universal law. Historically, though, this has almost exclusively been applied to human animals.

More recently, Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy of “otherness” has helped to form a critique of autonomous agency, especially a “suffering narrative” that advocates for a “transcendental ethic of otherness to operate in the ontology of human rights to promote heterogeneity and respect for the infinity of difference that signifies Being.” Similarly, veganism seeks to promote the moral standing of “others” precisely because this remains relevant to the subject of exploitation in terms of shifting from dignity in autonomous agency to dignity in responsibility to otherness.

Veganism connects the discrimination between animals to human outgroups in the conversation concerning social dominance. The goal is to identify exploitation both on a systematic and psychological level, as evidence shows that those who espouse greater ethnic prejudice, for example, also espoused higher levels of discrimination. Understanding the dynamics of the exploitation of animals is crucial when discussing veganism and COOL, as it forms part of the foundation of veganism.

Shifting back to the topic of COOL, there have been positive developments in terms of providing consumers with all the relevant information needed for labelling. It has been reported that although many surveyed consumers report wanting more information on product labels, they were not necessarily sure what information may be missing. There is a glaring need for improvement to label design and information provided if we are to shift toward sustainable and ethical food production.

In addition to origin, production date, health and wellness factors, environmental/sustainability factors and information about the food process and supply chain can be included on labels. Assistive technology can also be made available, utilizing a smart label and a QR coding system to provide consumers with comprehensive product information. Ideally, we are differentiating for consumers with varying levels of awareness so that everyone can access advanced information concerning the origin of the products they purchase. The rationale is that informed people will make informed decisions.

Even among those who do not necessarily self-identify as vegan, what they think and believe about animal exploitation is inconsistent. A German study revealed that animal welfare was the most important factor to young consumers, followed by environmental protection. What is promising about this study’s results is it showed over half of its participants were ethically motivated as opposed to price-oriented or price-quality oriented, meaning that concern for this issue has become prevalent. As ethical products become more acceptable and provide transparency (even through assistive technology), COOL patterns can become more effective.

Combatting fraudulent labelling practices continues to be an issue within the food transportation industry. One study reports how relatively under-researched the problem of fraud has been in industrial/academic circles and the exact amount of fraudulent activity taking place in food transportation is difficult to determine. Industrial players, enforcement officials and consumers have demonstrated a growing concern about escalating fraud, and food business organizations will require enhanced traceability as it is becoming a more prevalent force in terms of risk assessment.

Another study gave more details about the types of labelling fraud that are prone to occur, mentioning that the way labelling is presented may decrease consumer interest and understanding with about half of consumers surveyed stating that they believe the information is reliable. There was, however, a lack of confidence reported concerning processed foodstuffs and food fraud scandals have decreased consumer trust, with age and education being the most important socioeconomic factors influencing consumer perception. Not only does this spark a need for improved consumer education, but the researchers also suggest that information should be presented in a more clear way to reduce instances of food fraud.

Legal issues have also persisted in the COOL of non-food products as well. It has been documented concerning EU and WTO legal positions on COOL that it has been rejected as “discriminatory,” “obviously illegal,” “equally applicable in form only” and a “suspect category of trade barrier,” which results in unclear legality of mandatory COOL. The main issue in the EU context is that Member States are wary of the EU’s authority to determine “made in” rules over the states themselves, as well as interests involved that do not want to be disclosed.

Unfortunately, it is consumers who pay the price as “made in” labelling globally means so many different things that it becomes almost meaningless. To add to the confusion, goods only need to comply with regulations in the market they are sold to. For example, a manufacturer could make a cup in China and label it as “Made in the USA” to sell in an African country with poor regulations and enforcement, then it is diverted to the grey market and ends up on an online marketplace being sold as “Made in the USA” to global consumers. Against what common sense might dictate, the US or any other country has little to no power to regulate “Made in” claims in other countries, especially if those other countries have little to no regulations regarding COOL themselves.

Canada is a great example where regulations add to consumer confusion. In Canada “made in” claims are regulated differently whether it’s a food product or a generic good, the latter being subjected to a 51% threshold while the former is subjected merely to the “last substantial transformation of the product occurred in Canada.”

However, the most confusing thing of all is that Canada has regulations completely opposite those in the US, its largest trading partner, but using the same wording to mean different things. In the US, the unqualified claim “Made in USA” requires that “all or virtually all” of a product is made in the USA, but in Canada the equivalent claim is “Product of Canada”. In Canada the qualified claim of “Made in Canada” that does not imply that it has passed the 51% threshold can come with a meaningless statement of “Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients” regardless of the Canadian content. In the US, the FTC is clear and if the US content is negligible such claims are deceptive for consumers and would be illegal. Instead, it would need to say “Made in US from Imported Parts” or “Assembled in USA.”

The fact that COOL globally seems to require refinement is an understatement. Not only are there visible traceability issues in the process but also poor enforcement of COOL legislation. It was reported that Canadian grocery store chains were stocked with tomato products that have been connected to forced labour in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Italian companies such as Antonio Petti Fu Pasquale S.p.A. (label name “Petti”) came under investigation for their sale of Whole Foods 365 Double Concentrated Tomato Paste, which has been found to be produced in forced labour camps by Uyghurs and other targeted minorities. The company insists that the paste in question was only meant to be sold to African markets, however, that doesn't negate their willingness to use forced labour. Companies can still utilize forced labour, so long as they can find markets with lax labour laws.

Even Canada, which prides itself as a socially progressive and commercially responsible nation, is shockingly inactive in terms of enforcing COOL laws in practice. In fact, only one shipment of goods has been impounded under suspicions of connection to forced labour in Xinjiang, China in 2020. Even in this instance, the importer was able to successfully challenge the seizure, bringing into question how seriously COOL laws are being enforced on imports coming to Canada.

South of the border, the US is making efforts to address the issues that arise from shipping multi-origin products under COOL. Last year, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which contains a wide range of provisions aimed at improving the United States’ ability to compete on a global scale. A modified version of this bill was adopted in August 2022 as the CHIPS and the Science Act, but unfortunately, various consumer protection measures like the “Country of Origin Labeling Online Act'' included in the USICA have not made it into the final bill. Nevertheless, the FTC on its own in 2021 refined the definition of “Made in USA” and has already begun enforcing its new rules against Florida-based Lithionics Battery LLC, a company that has allegedly been falsely labelling its battery products with an American flag image surrounded by the words “Made in USA” often accompanied by the statement “Proudly Designed and Built in USA”, when these products have been primarily made overseas since 2018.

In a similar Australian case, a company agreed to amend its COO labels from “Made in Australia” to “Packed in Australia” after the Australian Competition&Consumer Commission (ACCC) raised concerns their frozen fish products may not have been “substantially transformed” in Australia using fish from countries such as New Zealand, South Africa and the US. Regardless of the vegan philosophy, there are clear COOL obstacles turning up as a result of wildly inconsistent global regulations and enforcement of rules.

With many glaring loopholes in COOL’s effectiveness comes quality of label concerns from both organizations that self-identify as vegan and the animal agriculture industry as well. On a negative note, traditional Kantian thought in terms of “autonomous agency” which dominates Western thought has historically only applied to human animals. On a more positive note, concerned consumers reported success with smart labels and other coding systems. There is a lot of research that demonstrates a rise in consumer interest in COOL’s methodology. People want to know where their products come from and how they were made. There is also a lot of research that shows how ineffective COOL has been in practice, with a call for competent leadership being found across the board in terms of concerned consumers. There already have been responses to some of these concerns, with varying degrees of success.

Ultimately the responsibility falls on us to take any extra steps necessary to improve COOL efficacy. A lot of the inaction by our colleagues, many other organizations and society in general is based on the fallacy that solutions should come from above, instead of being grassroots in nature, and this is a crucial deficiency that prevents all meaningful progress from taking place. It is true that changing COOL regulations can be challenging, but vegan certification is the responsibility of the vegan movement; no one else will step in and fix the mess we have made. It is within our power to require clear and meaningful COOL rules on products that are certified vegan. Everyone must also be an activist until the end of animal exploitation is finally reached because that is the reality of the situation.

What is ethically wrong with killing, animal testing or any other form of animal exploitation is not where it occurs in the supply chain, or whether it occurs to an animal that looks like a cow, but that it occurs at all. Always support products, services, certifications and organizations that align with your beliefs. Ours are clear and our dedication to our vision is unwavering.

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