The European Parliament yesterday (16 June) voted to make nutrition labelling of pre-packed foods mandatory, but rejected calls by health and consumer organisations' for a traffic light system giving consumers a visual warning for high fat, sugar or salt content of a product.

Meeting in Strasbourg, MEPs even rejected traffic light labels applied at national level.

The Commission's original proposal suggested that national governments should be allowed to decide on visual support systems for nutrition labelling.

The UK, for example, already uses a traffic light system - red, amber and green - to give consumers information at-a-glance about the content of key nutrients relevant to health. Other countries have been studying the possibility of following suit.

The Parliament's position is now being sent to EU member states in the Council and it will be up to them to decide whether they accept such limitations to national rules on the matter.

Meanwhile, the House voted to ask producers of processed foods, such as biscuits or prepared meals, to indicate on the front of packaging the content of energy, salt, sugar, fat and saturated fat.

These should be accompanied by guideline daily amounts (GDAs) and expressed with values per 100g or per 100ml instead of 'per portion', MEPs said. 

The report prepared by the Parliament's environment committee was adopted, with amendments, by 559 votes in favour to 54 against amid 32 abstentions.

Lobbying battle

While consumer organisations and health groups have been calling for mandatory colour-coding for products, industry favours a system of guideline daily amounts (GDAs), which estimates the average daily energy and nutrient requirements for human consumption and provides the percentages contained in a product. The GDA system has already been adopted on a voluntary basis by several large manufacturers.

The lobbying campaigns on both sides have also come under the spotlight. Last week, Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO, claimed that the food and drink industry had invested more than €1 billion in a lobby campaign to block an EU-wide traffic light labelling scheme.

"Food industry lobbyists have bombarded MEPs with information about the labelling scheme, in the biggest lobbying campaign seen in Brussels in recent years," the NGO stated.

The CEO cited an MEP who estimated that industry lobbyists managed to "drown out the message from public health campaigners on a scale of 100 to 1" ahead of yesterday's vote, as MEPs were bombarded with thousands of e-mails, letters, phone calls, reports, lectures and conferences.

The Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries (CIAA), representing food manufacturers, rejected the allegation, saying the one billion euro figure was "quite simply unfounded and untrue".

According to a spokeswoman for the CIAA, the figure, which was first cited in a press article in March, corresponded to the estimated cost of fulfilling the industry's commitment to roll-out its voluntary GDA scheme on their products since 2006 under the EU Platform for Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

She further noted that EU food and drink manufacturers, like many other consumer and interest groups, have a legitimate interest in following this piece of EU legislation and making sure that European policymakers, including MEPs, are "kept abreast of its views on this important draft law".

Country of origin labelling

The Parliament also backed a proposal from the environment committee for mandatory origin labelling of meat, fish, poultry and dairy products, even when used as an ingredient in processed food, as well as of other single-ingredient products.

It asks producers to indicate where animals were born, raised and slaughtered in a bid to allow consumers to favour products from their region and avoid long animal journeys.

Country-of-origin labelling is already compulsory for certain foods, such as beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables.

Label for appetite-enhancing substances

The Parliament also voted for mandatory labelling of trans-fats, foods containing nano-particles and appetite-enhancing substances. Furthermore, if a food contains a sweetener, this must be indicated on the front of the package.

Nutrient profiles

The Parliament voted against amendments by the House's environment committee which sought to delete nutrient profiles from an existing 2007 EU Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods

The regulation requires food manufacturers to display appropriate nutrient profiles in order to prove claims such as "low fat", "helps your body resist stress" or "reduces cholesterol".

If the amendment had been passed, the House would have allowed products high in fat, sugar or salt to bear claims (EurActiv 15/06/10).

New labels around 2015-2016?

No quick agreement on the draft legislation is expected with the Council and the text is likely to return to Parliament for a second reading.

Once the legislation has been adopted, the food business will have three years to adapt to the rules. Smaller companies, with fewer than 100 employees and an annual turnover of under €5 million, will have five years to comply.