An updated regulation on food labelling, issued in December 2006, requested the European Commission to define specific nutritional profiles which the food industry "must comply with in order to bear nutrition or health claims".
The aim of the profiles, which were to be issued by the beginning of 2009, was to make sure that consumers get reliable information on food and to help fight against obesity.
The rules were designed to avoid the proliferation of misleading labels, some of which claimed for instance that chocolate, as it is rich in calcium, is good for bones, without mentioning its high sugar content.
But two years after the expiry of the 2009 deadline to establish precise nutritional profiles, the Commission keeps postponing its proposal, according to critics.
The regulation on nutritional profiles "is currently frozen," confirmed Frédéric Vincent, spokesperson for EU Consumers Commissioner John Dalli.
"A few member states pushed for rules on nutritional profiles to be postponed," explained the spokesperson. Germany heads that group.
Berlin leading opposition
Berlin is raising objections regarding traditional German brown bread, which is rich in fibre but has a high salt content. With a strict regulation on nutritional profiles, it would be impossible for German bakers to claim that their brown bread is a healthy food, as they do now.
The Commission took full note of Germany's concerns, and in a new version of the draft regulation issued in February 2009, it added a paragraph stipulating that brown bread, as a traditional product, would be eligible for exemption from the rules on nutrient profiles.
"A higher threshold for sodium levels in bread containing fibres, such as certain traditional brown and crisp breads, should be set for a limited period in the context of nutrient profiles," reads the draft, which is still a work in progress.
The exemption granted to traditional foods raised eyebrows. "There is no reason why pork pies, for example, should be exempt purely on the basis of one country regarding them as 'traditional'," said consumer protection group Which?.
"The definition of traditional is so vague that anything could pass under this description," the group added.
With a softer legislation in place, consumers risk being misled not only on traditional food but also in relation to a number of other foodstuffs.
"If the Commission does not make their draft stricter, foods such as jam doughnuts, high sugar cereals, shortbread biscuits, milkshakes and ready salted crisps will all be able to advertise a healthy aspect without having to be equally upfront about the unhealthy aspects of their content," claimed Which?.
Rules on health claims fast-tracked
While the legislative process on nutritional information is at a standstill, the regulation on health claims is well on track and it is expected to be presented by the Commission by mid-2011, Dalli's spokesperson said.
He admitted that the debate on both nutritional profiles and health claims started in 2008 "but the Commission decided to give priority to health claims".
EFSA, the European Food Safety Agency, is currently examining what health claims can be used. EFSA will also define criteria on when a health claim can be made.
However, many observers harbour doubts as to the rationale behind the foreseen timetable. According to them, prioritising rules on health and nutrition claims without having in place robust legislation on nutritional profiles risks allowing misleading claims to proliferate.
Indeed, the 2006 regulation first required the establishment of "specific nutritional profiles" before any health or nutrition claim could be made.
Health and nutrition claims have to be justified scientifically, but without clear definitions of nutritional profiles, less stringent criteria can apply. Conversely, with legislation on nutritional profiles in place, the food industry would be forced to assess in detail the nutritional characteristics of a product, making it more difficult to obtain a health claim.
The food industry would surely welcome such an approach, which would seem to cast aside the interests of consumers, according to critics, who added that companies had already won a key battle by ensuring that nutritional profiles will be only used as scientific data for experts and will not be shown on labels, because they are deemed as a potential deterrent for consumers buying certain foods.
Campaign against pure chocolate
The interests of consumers also seem to have been sidelined on another recent occasion.
Following a formal complaint from the Commission, the European Court of Justice condemned Italy in November last year for having granted the label "pure chocolate" exclusively to products made entirely with cocoa butter.
Two directives adopted in 2000 established that a certain amount of vegetable fats, in addition to higher-quality cocoa butter, are allowed in a chocolate product with no effect on claims regarding its quality.
Italy has thus been punished for imposing a stricter label certifying that "pure chocolate" can only be made with cocoa butter.
The consumer interest again seems to have been cast aside. Indeed, the industry welcomed a ruling which sealed a low common denominator for the quality of chocolate across Europe, allowing producers to increase their profit margins.