With the expansion of globalized food markets, reliable geographical identification is essential to avoid foodstuffs’ mislabeling and fraud. The legislation, therefore, introduced the country-of-origin labeling.
As a mushroom can produce either by using domestic resources or import the resources in part or in total from foreign countries, this system can fall short, as the following story from the US and a lawsuit from Europe shows.
The US story is about the mushroom farmer Gary Schroeder who owned a mushroom farm in Kennett Square. As more and more other farmers are importing mushroom blocks from outside the country – especially from China – he was faced with lower and lower prices. The consequence was that he had to declare in the beginning of 2021 after over 35 years in business bankruptcy (1).
The issue here is not only the lower prices but that the mushrooms are sold as “Product of USA.”
As this misleading information is also happening in Germany, the Zentrale zur Bekämpfung unlauteren Wettbewerbs Frankfurt am Main eV filed a lawsuit against a company which cultivated the raw material in the Netherlands and Belgium to then transport the blocks to Germany where they are matured, and the harvested mushrooms being sold as “Origin: Germany.”
The lawsuit went up to the highest Court in Germany the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice) which itself went to the Court of Justice of the European Union and to ask the following questions which I will paraphrase.
First, if the definition of the term ‘country of origin’ written in the law is decisive (2).
Second, do cultivated mushrooms which are harvested in a national territory have their origin in that territory even if substantial production steps [take] place in other Member States of the European Union and the cultivated mushrooms have been transported to the relevant national territory only three days or fewer prior to the first harvest? (2)
Third, is the prohibition on the making of misleading statements to be applied to the indication of origin that is required under the law? (2)
Fourth, is it permitted to append additional, explanatory elements to the indication of origin described in order to counteract a misleading statement prohibited? (2)
The Court held, on the first and second questions, that the meaning of the term ‘country of origin’, used in the Regulations on agriculture, must be based on the customs regulations for determining the non-preferential origin of goods. (2)
The Court considered that the law, should be interpreted in such a way that the country of origin of cultivated mushrooms is the country where they are harvested, even though essential phases of production take place in other Member States of the Union and those mushrooms were transferred to the territory where they were harvested only three days or less prior to the first harvest. (2)
On the third and fourth questions, the Court noted that the fact that the law did not refer to the customs procedure for determining the origin of foodstuffs does not alter the fact that, on the basis of the rules which are otherwise applicable to fruit and vegetables, those products may only be placed on the market if the country of origin is specified, whereby that country is determined on the basis of the customs procedure. (2)
It is notable that under the FIC Regulation the notion of ‘country of origin’ of a food is defined by reference to the customs rules. (2)
The Court recalled that the FIC Regulation notably imposes the indication of the country of origin or place of provenance of a food where failure to indicate this might mislead the consumer as to the true country of origin or place of provenance of the food, but that the FIC Regulation applies without prejudice to other specific EU rules on labelling. (2)
The Court emphasized that in case the indication of the country of origin, determined by virtue of the customs procedure, is required for the product concerned to be placed on the market, that indication as such cannot be regarded at the same time as being liable to mislead consumers. (2)
In view of the foregoing, the Court held that Union Law must be interpreted as meaning that where an indication of origin is required by Customs law, this indication cannot be held to mislead consumers and therefore, in such circumstances, no obligation may be imposed on food business operators to supplement the country-of-origin information with additional information, and there is no risk to be prevented of potentially misleading consumers. (2)
Is there still a way out after this decision of the highest Court in Europe?
It is, as all courts interpret only the current laws, and laws can be adjusted.
For example, if we take a look at the current mandatory origin-labeling schemes, especially those for meat. We see, that here, due to the BSE epidemic, which started in the 80s and ended in 2016, an indication of origin (place of birth, rearing and slaughter) has been mandatory for beef and beef products since 1. January 2002.
Over the years, new resolutions were introduced to adjust to the individual situation.
Interestingly, the European Parliament adopted one of the resolutions after noticing that 84% of EU citizens considered it necessary to indicate the origin of milk, whether sold as such or used as an ingredient in dairy products.
Meaning the law will be adjusted either in the event of a disaster or if enough people are standing up for the change.
This brings me to the point that we should not wait until a catastrophic event happens inside the industry. It harms people and the industry as a whole, as it did in other sectors of the food industry.
As we are confronted with an industry trend of ship products to another place to maturing, there might be trouble down the road. Therefore, to prevent such an event from happening, it is necessary to adjust the current labeling system for mushrooms to indicate the origin of the substrate, place of cultivation, and place of harvesting as well as processing.
To support the labeling system’s adjustment, authors from Korea (3), a country that phases the same challenge, investigated the possibility to trace back the origin of mushrooms based on the substrate used.
Therefore, today’s research paper describes the limitations of the current origin labeling system for non-soil-based agricultural products and suggests alternative strategies for identifying such products’ geographical origin by analyzing the substrate’s composition.
To identify the geographical origin of the substrate, the authors analyzed the amount of the following isotopes δ13C, δ15N, δ18O, and δ34S. As each one of them is influenced by the environment.
δ13C is mainly associated with the photosynthetic system. δ15N is affected by regional agricultural practices, nitrogen availability, and isotopic fractionation by chemical, physical, microbial, and nutritional conditions in local soil.
δ18O is influenced by geoclimatic conditions like for example altitude, latitude, or the relative humidity. δ34S is mostly related to soil geological properties and is somewhat affected by anthropogenic activities and sea-spray effects.
While mushrooms are non-photosynthetic living organisms and are usually cultivated inside, they are not directly taking up these isotopes. Still, they will fortify these isotopes indirectly while degrading the substrate.
The authors’ first step was to differentiate between the two cultivation methods, log cultivation and bag cultivation. In doing so, they found the following values. These values create a fingerprint, which we now can compare and use to distinguish the two cultivation methods. Which is indicated by the black dotted line.
Second, they analyzed the sawdust blocks from their own country, Korea, and compared the results with ready-to-grow blocks from China and sawdust blocks from China and sawdust blocks from China which were inoculated in Korea.
If we put the three fingerprints next to each other, we can see the differences. The authors then went on and used these values and made a discriminant analysis. Meaning, they analyzed the substrate under two premises.
The first was using Chinese inoculated sawdust blocks when considered as having a Chinese origin. And the second one, using Chinese inoculated sawdust blocks when considered as having a Korean origin. In doing so, they created the following chart.
Here, function 1 and function 2 representing the two premises. While for function 1, then cut between the Korean and Chinese origin is easier to make, it is not for function 2.
Nonetheless, the authors could show that by analyzing the substrates according to their oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur content, around 93.5% could be correctly classified for the first assumption. This number drops down to 82% for the second assumption.
Independently of these numbers, the Korean government will, according to this article, implement in December 2020 a revised origin labeling system.
The authors concluded that this origin labeling system for mushroom species as they are not soil-based products must be discussed and appropriately revised to protect consumers and producers from fraud or mislabel in the global market.
Talk to you in the next video.
(3) 📝 Chung, IM., Kim, YJ., Kwon, C. et al. An origin identification model for labeling of shiitake (Lentinula edodes). npj Sci Food 5, 2 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41538-021-00085-4, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/