You Are What You Eat: New Food Rules for Finland

If you know where food items on a restaurant menu come from, would it affect your decisions on what you order for lunch or dinner?

File picture of fresh fish, and label showing country of origin / Credit: News Now Finland

Do you know where your food comes from? Do you even want to know?

New regulations set to come into force mean that restaurants will have to inform customers of the country of origin of fresh and frozen meant and fish used in the dishes, by listing it on the menu.

Other new rules state that pre-packed foods like frozen pizza and macaroni laatikko; or yoghurts and ice cream made in Finland now also have to list the country of origin of the main ingredients.

Pilot Projects

In a supermarket it’s easy to find out the source of products because meat, fish, fruit and vegetables are labeled with their country of origin. This helps with transparency in the food supply chain, and allows customers to make informed choices about what they’re buying and where it comes from.

Finland has been running a pilot programme to see the impact on a smaller scale of such regulations, and now it is set to expand, after the relevant EU institutions have been notified.

“We held 20 meetings and workshops for small enterprises like restaurants and food processors” explains Dr Pekka Turkki from the South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences XAMK.

“We already have a ministerial decree that entered into force at the beginning of June concerning the origin labeling of meat used as an ingredient in foodstuff, and origin labels of milk used as an ingredient in dairy produce” says Anne Haikonen, who is leading the project at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

“This is already in force, and applies to pre-packed foodstuffs produced in Finland, and it’s a fixed term pilot project for two years” Haikonen says.

Restaurant Rules

But other new rules go further than before, applying country of origin requirements to restaurants as well.

“In several surveys, consumers showed they are interested about the origin of meat and fish in restaurants, and it’s also a political decision, an important issue for our current minister Jari Leppä” (Centre) explains Haikonen.

“There are always customers who don’t give a damn, but many customers are interested to get the information without asking” she adds.

Unsurprisingly, many in the restaurant industry have been pushing back against the incoming rules.

While there won’t be an opt-out for smaller restaurants, or lunch places, they do have an option to list whether meat or fish comes from the EU or non-EU countries, instead of naming a specific country. This could be helpful in a fish restaurant for example, where the catch of the day might change regularly.

“It’s not very accurate information, but at least it gives the information whether it comes from the EU, so customers will know it has been produced under EU rules” says Ministry of Agrictulture’s Anne Haikonen.

What Do Chefs Think?

At Fisken på Disken fish restaurant and oyster bar in Helsinki, the kitchen receives fresh produce from the fishmonger, and serves it up to the customers.

Right now they don’t write on the menu where each fish comes from, but if a customer asks, the serving staff know.

“We try to keep the menu as simple as possible, but when a customer asks a specific question, because we use fresh produce, we can tell them it’s from this lake or that sea, or Iceland, Norway or wherever” says Chef Joona Lehto.

At Lehto’s restaurant, in Kamppi shopping centre, not everyone cares where the fish comes from. For some dishes like fish and chips, chefs will use pollock, cod or whatever is fresh from the market that day. So having to update their menus on a daily basis would be an extra administrative chore for smaller restaurants

Origin vs Price

Celebrity Chef Sami Garam isn’t so sure how the new regulations will work in practice, and whether it could affect the choices – and prices – for customers.

“Always if you have to do something, it’s not good. And if there’s some kind of law or rule that you have to write in the menu you have this or that, then it’s something I don’t like” says Garam, who runs busy lunch restaurants, in addition to his fine dining catering business.

“I am happy if the chefs know where ingredients come from, which country, even which farm. That would be more than welcome if the staff who are working know it and can tell it to the customers” he says.

Another potential issue that Garam foresees is about buying local produce or foreign produce.

He gives an example of fish from Estonia. The price of the fish is lower than the same fish caught in Finnish waters. So customers have a choice – to not take the Estonian fish because they only want to eat local produce; or to have Finnish fish on the menu, but at a much higher price point.

“In lunch restaurants of course I want to use as much as possible local things, but it is not possible because they are too pricey”.

Ministry officials concede it will be hard to enforce the new rules. After all, a restaurant could label a product with a country of origin of “Finland” even if it comes from another cheaper, country. Health inspectors would have to check the veracity of food origin claims and as yet there’s no penalties laid down for kitchens that break the law.

New regulations could come in at the start of 2018, after Finnish authorities have informed the relevant EU institutions about how the rules will work.