The European Parliament is set to vote this week on a compromise text negotiated with EU member state which makes nutrition labelling of pre-packed foods mandatory.
Under the new rules, energy value and amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrates, protein, sugars and salt must be indicated "in the same field of vision" per 100g or per 100ml, and may additionally also be expressed per portion.
A minimum font size of 1.2 mm will be required to ensure that the labels are legible.
Furthermore, the new rules require that allergenic substances must be highlighted in bold in the ingredients list so that consumers can find the information on allergens at first glance.
The aim of the new regulation is to enable consumers to make healthier dietary choices by better understanding what's in the food they eat.
Palm oil to be labelled
The new rules also require manufacturers to indicate the origin of vegetable oils use in food. Currently, many ingredient lists for products merely state "vegetable oil", without specifying whether it comes from rapeseed, corn, sunflower or palm.
Concerned with palm oil plantations that endanger rainforests and wildlife, EU lawmakers insisted that the source of vegetable oil should be indicated on the packaging.
Renate Sommer, a German Christian Democrat MEP from the European People's Party (EPP) who drafted the report for the European Parliament, said companies often use mixtures of vegetable oils. When part of a mixture, the different origin of oils should be listed by order of importance, Sommer explained. However, manufacturers will not be obliged to list the exact percentage of oils used.
To the satisfaction of consumer groups, the new legislation prohibits companies from implying the presence of a particular ingredient when in fact it has been substituted with another, usually cheaper one.
'Fake' cheese made mostly with vegetable oil (often palm oil), water and hardly any milk will fall under that category. Other examples include combinations of meat (glued meat) and fish parts.
Such products must now carry a label stating "made of vegetable oil," "formed meat" and "formed fish". Such indications must be next to the brand name and in a minimum font size of 75% of the brand name.
Mandatory origin labels for meat
Another new element is the extension of compulsory country of origin labelling for fresh meat like swine, sheep, goat and poultry. Similar rules already apply for beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables, which must carry a label.
Country of origin labelling might in future be extended to milk and dairy products and meat in processed foods. A decision will be made after the European Commission has carried out an impact assessment to determine the feasibility and potential costs of such labelling requirements.
Clearer labeling for 'trans fats', alcohol postponed
The Commission was also asked to carry out an evaluation on the presence of so-called "trans fats" in food and present a report within three years.
The consumption of trans fats has been associated with high cholesterol and heart disease. While trans fats occur naturally in milk for example, most of those consumed today are partially hydrogenated unsaturated vegetable oils. These oils are used in a series of processed food industry products, such as baked goods, to increase product shelf life and to replace more expensive butter at lower cost.
The EU executive's report could be accompanied by a legislative proposal suggesting a harmonised solution to trans fats – including clearer labelling and restrictions on their use.
The same goes for alcohol, which for the time being remains exempt from obligations to bear a nutrition declaration and a list of ingredients.
Initially, the Commission sought to label so-called 'alcopops' – the ready-to-drink mixed alcoholic beverages popular with youngsters. But it appears that the EU executive first needs to define what exactly an alcopop is.
The Commission will then, within three years, examine whether alcoholic beverages, including alcopops, should in the future reveal their energy values. A legislative proposal will follow if appropriate.
The compromise deal struck with the EU Council of Ministers was approved by all political parties in the European Parliament except for the leftist GUE/NGL group, which is planning to vote against it.
Gianfranco Battistini MEP, the group's spokesman, told EurActiv that he rejected the deal because it did not require mandatory front of pack labelling for fat, sugars and salt. The group was also disappointed that the new EU rules did not take on board the concept of colour coding these nutrients, by using a traffic light system like in Britain.
The GUE/NGL lamented the labelling exemption for alcoholic beverages and regretted that a country of origin label would not be required immediately for milk and dairy products, meat as an ingredient in processed foods and single ingredient products such as coffee.