Delayed Commission report on alcohol labelling frustrates beer industry

Beer labels

Beer labels. Not enough info? [a olin/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Alcohol in the EU’s policies.

SPECIAL REPORT / New EU rules on nutrition labelling for food and drinks entered into force a few months ago. But whether or not alcoholic beverages will also have to carry them in the future is still unclear. A Commission report on the issue, due in December last year, is yet to be published.

Renate Sommer is a centre-right German MEP (European People’s Party) who was rapporteur on the food labelling regulation when it was voted on in the European Parliament back in 2011.

Speaking at an event hosted by the EURACTIV Institute last week, she recalled that alcoholic beverages were excluded from the regulation because lawmakers could not agree on a definition for so-called alcopops, which are mixtures of alcoholic beverages with soft drinks or juices.

>> Read: EU food labelling rules ready, new round to start

The European Commission was given until December 2014 to define alcopops, and to deliver a report about how alcoholic beverages should be treated under the regulation.

However, nothing has been published so far, and there is no indication the Commission will do so any time soon.

Making comparisons

This has led to an absurd situation where consumers can easily find out the list of ingredients contained in a bottle of milk, but not on a bottle of whisky or beer, said participants at the EURACTIV event.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) said consumers ought to have this information as few consumers are aware that a half litre of beer (5% alcohol) contains approximately 220 calories, or the equivalent of a chocolate bar.

Because it believes consumers have the right to know what’s in their drinks, BEUC recently sent a letter to the EU Commissioner for Food and Health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, urging him to step up action on alcohol labelling.

“BEUC can see no good reason why alcoholic drinks should be treated differently. Labelling nutritional info and the full list of ingredients should be mandatory to help consumers know what and how much to drink,” wrote Monique Goyens, BEUC secretary-general.

Contacted by EURACTIV, the Commission said it was currently not in a position to announce the date of adoption of its report.

“Exploratory work has been carried out which has led to preliminary discussions with member states, but most of the work remains to be done,” the Commission wrote. “Further discussions are still needed before we can progress with this report.”

Brewers launch voluntary move on labelling

AB InBev, the leading global brewer, was frustrated with the delay, saying that “clarity from the Commission on how they see the labelling discussion for all alcohol sectors is overdue.”

The Brewers of Europe, which represents the beer industry in Brussels, backed the consumer group, saying shoppers have a right to compare nutritional and ingredients information, between beers and other beverages, alcoholic and non-alcoholic.

“We are thus looking forward to the Commission publishing the report and seeing what plans the EU has to address the current exemption for alcoholic beverages to provide nutrition and ingredients information,” said Simon Spillane, senior advisor to The Brewers of Europe.

In the meantime, The Brewers of Europe, announced a major voluntary move to list ingredients and nutrition information on their brands per 100ml, in line with the new EU regulation.

“We want Europe’s consumers to know the ingredients in beer and how these beers can fit within a balanced lifestyle,” said Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, Secretary General of The Brewers of Europe. “Brewers already label the alcohol content on their beer brands but we also agree with consumer groups that citizens would benefit from having access to the ingredients and nutrition information, allowing them to compare like-for-like facts with all the other beverages available to them, both non-alcoholic and alcoholic.”

Misleading consumers?

But SpiritsEurope, a trade group representing producers of spirit drinks at EU level, believes putting detailed nutrition information on the product’s labels could mislead consumers.

While SpiritsEurope is in favour of sharing information with consumers on nutrition, origin and ingredients, it says a detailed discussion needs to take place about what exactly should be displayed. Moreover, it believes information should only be provided per portion, and not by 100 milliliter (ml), as is required under the existing regulation.

“While 100ml is usually a fraction of the amount of beer a person might consume in one serving, it can equal to three servings of spirits: the maximum daily recommendation for men and beyond what is recommended for women. A calorie comparison based on 100 ml rather than per serving will mislead rather than inform,” SpiritsEurope said. 

Paul Skehan, the director-general of SpiritsEurope, called for an open dialogue “for the assessment of the most appropriate method of provision of each information, that is, whether on- or off-label”.

CEEV, a trade group representing the wine sector, agreed, saying labelling is not the only solution to convey information to consumers.

“It is certainly not the panacea to provide information on the energy content in wines that is proportionate, accurate, meaningful and useful for consumers,” CEEV commented, saying it is sometimes “better delivered off-pack,” like on internet sites.

CEEV also argued that wine products have specific characteristics, which vary from producer to producer and year to year. This means that the administrative burdens linked to the management of changing labels, and related stock-keeping for wine producers. would be unparalleled in comparison with other mass-produced industrial food and beverage products. 

“Mandatory nutritional labelling would result in the wine sector incurring huge additional costs that would be impossible to face by most wine producers, an overwhelming majority of micro, small and medium enterprises,” CEEV told EURACTIV.

Renate Sommer agreed that the question of mandatory labelling for alcoholic beverages was difficult.

“There is a difference between spirits, beer and wine. Mandatory labelling says it has to be always labelled per 100 ml. This might mislead the consumer on the consumption of the spirit. You shouldn’t drink 100 ml of spirits as a unit. It sounds easy just to have everything labelled, but we need to also take the problems of the producers into account,” she said.

After three years of negotiations, EU lawmakers adopted a new regulation on Food Information to consumers in 2011.

The new law, which entered into force in December 2014, aims to help consumers make informed decisions on the food they buy, and help them make healthier choices.

>> Read: EU food labelling rules ready, new round to start

Food business operators were granted a transitional period of three years to adapt until the rules came into effect, on 13 December 2014. 

Moreover, new mandatory rules for nutrition declaration, such as energy, fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt, which have to be displayed on back of a pack per 100 gram or mililitres, will only apply from 13 December 2016. 

Alcoholic drinks have so far not been included under the new EU-wide food labelling rules.

  • 31 Mar. 2015: Adoption of alcohol resolution in the Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee.
  • April 2015: Vote in Parliament plenary, second session. 

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