Most convenience foods such as sandwiches and pies are breaching industry guidelines by not identifying foreign ingredients, according to a study by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The health watchdog urges manufacturers to state the country of origin on "multi-ingredient" products, but 60 per cent failed to do so, it said.
When products are sold on their own, retailers are legally required to state the country of origin for beef, veal, fish and shellfish, honey, olive oil, wine, most fruit and vegetables, and poultry imported from outside the European Union. Processed food has to indicate the "location of the last substantial change" – which allows a sandwich containing Thai chicken to be labelled "produced in UK" because it has been placed in bread in Britain.
Consumer groups say this misleads consumers about freshness and quality, and allows retailers to claim they support British farms while importing cheaper meat produced under conditions that would be illegal in the UK.
Polling found that shoppers had relatively little interest in provenance labelling, with only 12 per cent saying unprompted that they looked for it, though the figure rose to 52 per cent with prompting. Shelf life (55 per cent) and price (54 per cent) were more important.
Shoppers who cared about the issue were frustrated and disappointed that companies could label products with foreign ingredients as British, according to Dr Philip Davies, of Oxford Evidentia, who presented five separate pieces of research. He said: "Consumers believe it should come from where it says on the label."
One study checked the labelling of 617 branded and own-brand products from supermarkets and convenience stores across Britain. All the products followed the law, but only 40 per cent of multi-ingredient products explicitly or implicitly stated the country of origin. For meat products, the proportion was higher at 44 per cent. For dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, which increasingly use Continental milk, the figure was 9 per cent.
The FSA's head of communications, Terrence Collis, said that although the agency could "cajole" companies, power ultimately lay with consumers, who should reject products which failed to meet the guidelines.
The British Retail Consortium welcomed the research as evidence that retailers were providing "very clear" labelling, often with written statements, Union flags or red tractors.
"Many retailers provide information well beyond the legal requirements and give the country of origin for the ingredients of manufactured products even though it's not a statutory requirement," said food director Andrew Opie.
The consumer group Which? said it hoped EU proposals would end "misleading" labels. Sue Davies, its policy director, described as "bizarre" the ruling that labels had to state the origin of beef but not of pork.
"It's great that more companies are now providing information on a voluntary basis, but unless this is mandatory, consumers won't always get the full picture," she said.Reuse content