You’re being lied to about what’s in your food. Or at least that’s what consumer group Foodwatch says. But does chocolate mousse really have to contain chocolate? What do consumers have the right to expect, and what are food makers allowed to claim? Inside the thick pudding of Germany’s uniquely complicated food labelling system.
It’s always a surprise and delight when newly-arrived British people see that cheap bakeries in Germany sell what look a lot like sausage rolls: a pinkish-brown sausage in flaky pastry. But disappointment isn’t far behind, because it turns out that this is a Geflügelrolle, or “poultry roll”. A chicken sausage – one of the many trials that German society forces on it immigrants. But what’s even more confounding is the reason why the bakery doesn’t just call it a Würstchenrolle. It’s not because it’s a legal requirement. It’s called a Geflügelrolle because it has Geflügel in it as well as pork. The chicken’s meant to be the best bit, the selling point. As for the rest of the sausage, it’s probably the usual mash of pig’s eyelids, feet and hair. So just like home after all, Brits.
Go to a supermarket and you’ll get even more confused. A Kalbfleisch-Leberwurst (“veal liver sausage”) doesn’t actually have to have veal liver in it. There has to be some veal in it, but not necessarily any liver, while the rest of the meat can be whatever the manufacturer thinks will taste good enough and be cheap enough to mass-produce. Similarly, Alaska Seelachs Scheiben, which looks a lot like smoked salmon, actually contains only humble Pacific pollock (a species the German food industry simply renamed as “Alaskan sea salmon”) that has been coloured pink and has probably never been to Alaska.
Foodwatch loves to find and list these misleading examples, and the consumer organisation’s complaints have gained more traction in recent years thanks to an accumulation of food scares: horse meat in supermarket beef products, rotten meat in döner outlets, pig flu, bird flu, new mutating strains of viruses. All these have led to more scrutiny into food manufacturing and safety standards. It’s an eternal question: what exactly is a chocolate mousse? And who gets to decide when you can call it that?
The food namers
As it turns out, in Germany, these rules are made not by MPs, but by a secret commission made up of 32 members: eight representatives each from the consumer groups, food science, food monitoring authorities, and the food industry. This commission oversees new products and market standards, and, with the advice of various smaller specialist panels, comes up with a set of guidelines that are collected in the Lebensmittelbuch – literally, the “Food Book”. The members of the committee are named by the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, where they meet twice a year. They don’t get paid beyond their expenses for the work. “There’s a lot of haggling over finding consensuses,” says Sieglinde Stähle, who sits on the commission representing the German Federation for Food Law and Food Science (BLL), and gets to see all the horse-trading. “When it comes to percentages, someone says, ‘Can we say five percent?’ ‘No, we can’t agree to that.’ ‘Okay, what about three percent?’”
“This commission sets out everything that is regulated on a national level – whatever doesn’t come under EU law,” says Andreas Winkler of Foodwatch. The system is unique to Germany (and Austria, from whom Germany got the idea in the 1950s). While other countries may have similar committees, their recommendations have to be submitted to parliaments to be made into law. In Germany, the committee’s guidelines are voluntary, but since they are adopted as industry standards, courts interpret them as they would laws. They’re laws that are not actually laws. This murky circumstance has led to a government inquiry into whether the Food Book is even necessary.
Behind closed doors
Unlike other consumer organisations, Foodwatch boycotts the commission, despite having been repeatedly invited to take part. “We consider this secret committee deeply undemocratic, because it is completely free from parliamentary control,” says Winkler. “And more than anything, the lobby representatives from the food industry have a right of veto there, since all the decisions have to be made unanimously. That means that it has made several absurd regulations that deliberately deceive consumers.” He reels off a few examples: “Veal-liver sausage only has to contain 15 percent veal, cherry tea doesn’t have to contain any cherries at all…” Since the protocols from the commission’s meetings are not published, there is no way of knowing which interest groups voted for or against which regulations.
Foodwatch wants the committee to be scrapped completely and replaced by a “democratic process”. They recently got some legal back-up from a respected lawyer called Stephan Rixen, who told Der Spiegel in December that the committee’s methods were “unconstitutional”. “The ministry has no control over the committee!” he exclaimed. “Once it’s been appointed, its procedures exclude any possibility of effective influence, nor can members be dismissed – even if they disregard parliamentary laws.”
Foodwatch’s legal attempts to make the committee publish its minutes have been unsuccessful. In 2010, Germany’s supreme administrative court in Münster ruled against Foodwatch, on the grounds that publishing the committee’s decision-making process would diminish its ability to evaluate cases honestly.
But despite that, behind the closed doors of the consumer protection ministry, there has been unease about the committee’s power – particularly in 2011, under the tenure of Minister Ilse Aigner. “The ministry didn’t want to support the commission properly anymore,” remembers Stähle. “Aigner had grown tired of the complaints. She said, ‘Well, maybe we should get rid of it, then we’ll have some peace.’”
Though that plan no longer seems to be on the table, the current government’s coalition agreement states that the commission’s guidelines “must be more strongly orientated towards the consumer’s right to truth and clarity”. That could mean a lot of things, but it seems to suggest that the food industry should have less influence on the guidelines than consumer groups. Last year, the consumer protection ministry ordered an independent study into the committee’s work by the consultancy AFC Public Services, which is finished, but whose results won’t be released until the spring. (A ministry spokeswoman declined to comment on the grounds that the study was still being evaluated.)
Stop expecting so much!
The commission, meanwhile, has decided it isn’t going to just sit there and take all this criticism. Birgit Rehlender, of consumer organisation Stiftung Warentest, has been on the commission since 1999 and chaired it since 2009, and she is frankly exasperated by the new attention. “The commission used to work quietly,” she says. “But since the whole discussion about food quality has increased, the commission’s work has become more public.”
The big Geflügelwurst debate, according to her, is all the fault of consumer expectations. “Geflügelwurst was never 100 percent poultry meat!” she says. “They put some proportion of poultry meat into the sausage, called it Geflügelwurst, then everyone suddenly thought it was great that you could swap some of the pork for poultry.” But, she points out, now that it is technically possible to make an entire sausage from chicken, consumers think they have a right to expect that if the chicken sausage is called a chicken sausage, it really is made of chicken and only chicken. “So now the label has to catch up with the market standard,” she says. “And that’s what we did!” (“The guideline now says you’re supposed to call it ‘poultry sausage with pork’,” says Stähle.)
Rehlender has passionate words for Foodwatch in particular but also for changing consumer expectations in general. “They pick out these examples, and often the consumer doesn’t even know that it’s been produced like that for decades,” she says. “They don’t think about what’s in there, then they take a look and suddenly they’re horrified by what goes into the product!”
This, according to her, is precisely why the food industry must be represented on the Food Book commission: they’re there to manage consumer expectations. Without its influence, there would be no consensus. “I’m not saying we couldn’t do things better,” she says. “But considering the circumstances under which the Food Book is produced, how dedicated we are to the issue, I can only say they should get down on their knees and thank us for our work!”
Originally published in issue #135, February 2015.