Food Standards Agency research into consumers’ use of country of origin labelling on food

Posted: 30 June 2010 | Jane Ince, Policy Advisor, Food Standards Agency | No comments yet

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) undertook research in 2009 on consumer use of country of origin labelling. The findings were published on 14 January 20101. The work reveals some interesting facts about how much this labelling is used in practice and about how, for meat and meat products in particular, the meaning of origin, for consumers, is based on where animals are farmed.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) undertook research in 2009 on consumer use of country of origin labelling. The findings were published on 14 January 20101. The work reveals some interesting facts about how much this labelling is used in practice and about how, for meat and meat products in particular, the meaning of origin, for consumers, is based on where animals are farmed.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) undertook research in 2009 on consumer use of country of origin labelling. The findings were published on 14 January 20101. The work reveals some interesting facts about how much this labelling is used in practice and about how, for meat and meat products in particular, the meaning of origin, for consumers, is based on where animals are farmed.

Consumers are interested in where their food comes from, but how much does this affect the purchases they make? Do consumers understand origin labelling rules? This research found that many consumers find country of origin labelling confusing.

Food labelling rules are set in the European Union and are presently under review. According to current rules, sausages (for example) which are made in the UK from imported meat can be labelled as ‘Produced in the UK’ as they have been made there. The origin of the imported meat ingredient need not be declared. This is a key point that consumers find confusing2.

However, the FSA wants consumers to find labelling informative and its best practice guidance3 advises businesses that such sausages should also indicate that the pork had, for example, come from Denmark (e.g. ‘Produced in the UK from Danish Pork’). Under a proposal for new legislation currently being discussed in Brussels4, this extra information will have to be given if any origin claim is made. This research gives the FSA evidence to support improved and clearer labelling for consumers.

Consumer behaviour

The FSA has been active in improving food labelling for consumers since it was set up in 2000. See the links provided for more information about the Food Labelling Action Plan and research that has taken place on labelling in the last decade5.

In 2006, the FSA Board sought additional evidence on how consumers actually use labels as opposed to what they say they do. During 2009, there was resurgence in public interest in country of origin labelling and a study that had been commissioned to look at behaviour using innovative eye tracking methods was expanded to cover consumer use of country of origin information in depth6.

The scope of the behavioural research was to examine the use of information on food labels, with the exception of nutrition labelling (which was subject to separate projects). Food labels are required by law to carry several pieces of information, including the name of the food, an ingredients list, use-by and best before dates. Origin information is compulsory on some groups of foods, and on others, it is required if it would be misleading not to include it. Food labels can also carry pieces of information voluntarily.

Consumers use short-cuts

The behavioural research showed that any particular consumer has their own agenda when using labels and they exercise selective attention, developing short-cuts to information. It is not surprising that it was concluded that time available affects consumers’ use of labels, but this has the consequence that labels frequently provide more information than can be processed, resulting in overload that often leads to confusion.

However, it is difficult to determine what might be removed from the label as different consumers think different elements are superfluous. It was found that general food labels in the UK are read on initial purchases by approximately only half of the population. For subsequent purchases, they will be read even less frequently. Large store brands reassure on consumer safety and well known brands have a ‘halo’ effect, signifying quality and safety, distracting from other label information.


Semiotics is the mix of signs and strategies employed in describing, wrapping and labelling food. Over time and with the large product ranges that are available today, this has evolved into a complex environment for the consumer. The behavioural research concluded that “food labelling is a medium of infinite possibility, with shifting conventions and a vocabulary in constant flux.” However, it is also the case that packaging and labelling is highly conventionalised. Within every type of food product, there is evidence of consistent colours (e.g. supermarkets use their brand colours to identify their various product ranges) and consistent verbal descriptors of product (e.g. mature, medium and mild for cheddar cheese).

Country of origin labelling

A message arising from this research is that origin labelling is not the key priority for consumers when shopping and on the whole they are more concerned about price and food safety. There was a distinct contrast between answers from consumers when either unprompted or prompted about origin labelling. Unprompted, only 11 per cent of consumers said that they looked for country of origin labelling. It is not rated as important compared with expiry date and price, which are selected by 55 per cent and 54 per cent of the sample respectively7.

However, when asked specifically about country of origin labelling, 52 per cent of respondents said they looked for it. It was found that the impact of origin information related to a number of elements and ‘values’ that consumers used when purchasing – quality, safety, freshness, animal welfare, food miles, authenticity, whether food is local/home grown and more generally with issues of trust. Origin labelling is also used to find information about the food chain and to support local economies, producers and jobs. It is interesting that in the UK, products labelled ‘British’ instilled confidence, and the same effect was seen in other countries in relation to their own country. However, the premium that consumers will pay for origin information is generally modest (no figures were found for the UK but, from previous studies, the premiums were 2.8 per cent in the USA and 7.7 per cent in Japan)8.

One of the main aspects of consumer confusion stems from the finding that very few people were aware of the rules about last substantial change, which defines the country of origin. Many people found this criterion of origin ambiguous, as is recognised in the FSA guidance. It was found that 54 per cent of consumers already thought that origin meant ‘where farmed’ and only 12 per cent thought it was based on last substantial change. Interestingly, after an explanation of how origin is based on last substantial change, 76 per cent of consumers considered country of origin should mean ‘where farmed’.

An encouraging sign is that the evidence shows that the voluntary guidelines are making things better for consumers. A survey of products on the market9 that looked at whether the FSA guidance was being followed or not showed that 97 per cent of 68 unprocessed meats had statements of origin and also that 44 per cent of 334 meat products had details of the origin of the meat ingredients, both of which are improvements on results of a similar survey in 2005.

Details of the research studies

The FSA funded research comprised five studies commissioned to external contractors: » A series of ‘Citizens Forums’ on country of origin labelling (BMRB)

» An omnibus quantitative consumer survey including country of origin questions (NatCen)

» A survey of UK-marketed products assessing the extent to which the FSA guidance on country of origin is being followed (Campden BRI)

» A qualitative behavioural study exploring consumer use of food labelling (Ipsos MORI)

» An evidence review on food labelling (Oxford Evidentia)

The top three studies in this list were primarily about country of origin. The FSA is keen to assess how well its guidance is being followed and learn about difficulties for industry in following the suggestions for best practice. The survey concentrated on meat and meat products but additionally included a pilot study to see how far the guidance was followed on a small sample of dairy products, fish products, fruit and vegetable products and sandwiches.

The latter two studies in the list were more wide ranging in their scope than country of origin labelling. These were the consumer behaviour work mentioned earlier and a literature review that looked at published work on attitudes and behaviour with regard to labels from the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.

Additionally there was a Synthesis report bringing findings of the aforementioned research together, again by Oxford Evidentia.

All of the work with the exception of the Citizens Forums was carried out in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Separate Citizens Forums were carried out in Scotland. The Scottish Citizens’ Forum work reflected the findings from the other country of origin studies10.

The Citizens Forums in England were a series of six workshops in urban and rural areas, convened over two waves to allow deliberative discussion of country of origin labelling, after further information on rules had been provided to participants.

Innovative methods to study consumer behaviour

There is little behavioural work on food labelling that is published in the literature and the FSA designed the research methods carefully so that they did not interfere with real life behaviour and were capable of focusing on the short amount of time that the average consumer spends on using food labels. This was informed by a pilot study11 on using eye-tracking glasses to test how best to conduct this in-depth research.

The eye-tracking glasses are special but non-obtrusive glasses that contained a small video camera which recorded what the wearer was specifically looking at – this was demonstrated via cross-hair footage. The videos were played back to the participants to enable discussion of what they looked at and why – and how the label affected their purchase decisions.

It was concluded that innovative methods were necessary to address the questions about consumer behaviour. The research report published in January 2010 included a range of study techniques such as the eye-tracking glasses used in real shopping environments and in a retail laboratory, accompanied shops, filmed meals and food preparation in the home – including looking through people’s cupboards to discover more about their behaviour.

The behavioural research was conducted in rural and urban areas of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with 36 eye-tracked shops in a real life context (nine in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), 15 non-eye-tracked accompanied shops (four in each of the countries except three in Northern Ireland), 15 filmed accompanied meals (ethnographic home visits and interviews) with four in each of the countries except for three in Scotland and finally 20 eye-tracked tasked shops in Ipsos Mori’s Retail Laboratory and six ‘follow up’ eye tracked tasked purchases.


The research findings that update and improve the FSA’s labelling evidence base will inform current discussions of origin labelling rules within the European Union as part of the proposal for a Food Information Regulation. The behavioural research methods used proved useful and will be considered for other aspects of the Agency’s work.


1. Country of origin labelling: a Synthesis of Research, Philip Davies, Kristen MacPherson, Oxford Evidentia, Social Science Research Unit, Food Standards Agency, January 2010, Unit Report 7 surveys/coolsynth

2. Citizens Forums on Food: Country of Origin labelling, Richard Stockley, Andrew Hunter, BMRB, Prepared for the Food Standards Agency, January 2010 ys/citforumcool

3. Food Standards Agency Guidance Notes, Country of Origin Labelling, 2008 ncenotes/labelregsguidance/originlabelling

4. The proposal for a Food Information Regulation: labellingnutrition/foodlabelling/proposed_ legislation_en.htm

5. researchandreports/foodlabellingforum and chandreports

6. Qualitative Research to Explore People’s Use of Food Labelling Information, Gemma Enright, Hugh Good, Nick Williams, Ipsos Mori, Social Science Research Unit, Food Standards Agency, January 2010, Unit Report 5 socsci/surveys/labelbehavres

7. Country of Origin Labelling, Omnibus Research Report, National Centre for Social Research, Social Science Research Unit, Food Standards Agency, January 2010, Unit Report 6, pdfs/coolomnibus.pdf

8. Evidence Review of Public attitudes toward, and Use of, General Food Labelling, Philip Davies, Kirsten MacPherson, Emma Froud, Oxford Evidentia Social Science Research Unit, Food Standards Agency, January 2010, Unit Report 4, science/socsci/surveys/foodlabreview

9. An Assessment of the Uptake of the Food Standards Agency Guidance on Country of Origin Labelling, D.R. Leeks, H.A. Lawler, F. Monadjemi, A. Wood, Campden BRI, Conducted on behalf of the Food Standards Agency, January 2010 researchinfo/choiceandstandardsresearch/ consumerchoicestandards/l01list/l01004/

10. Citizens Forums on Food: FSA supporting Scotland as a Land of Food and Drink – views from consumers across Scotland, Richard Stockley, Andrew Hunter, Elizabeth Jordan, BMRB, Prepared for the Food Standards Agency February 2010 publication/citizensforumfooddrinkscot.pdf

11. Pilot Study to investigate the potential of eye tracking as a technique for Food Standards Agency food labelling behaviour research, D. Rawson, I. Janes, K. Jordan, Eyetracker eyetracking.pdf

About the Author

Jane Ince

Dr Jane Ince joined the Food Standards Agency in 2000. Before this, she worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. At the Agency, she is in the Consumer Choice and Dietary Health Group and is responsible for Agency best practice advice on labelling. Jane studied Biochemistry at the University of Bristol and was awarded her Doctorate in Microbiology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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