EU agreement on food labelling taking shape

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This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.

Member states are nearing a deal on new food labelling rules that would leave wiggle room for industry to use their own labelling schemes and choose whether to show nutritional information on the front or back of a product's packaging.

The 27 EU ministers in charge of consumer affairs are set to reach a political agreement on the proposal at a meeting next Monday (6 December).

The expected deal comes after a first reading in the European Parliament last summer saw lawmakers reject calls by health and consumer groups for a traffic light system giving a visual warning for high fat, sugar or salt content in a product.

The Parliament vote was largely seen as a victory for the food industry, which had lobbied fiercely against the traffic light system, currently in force in the UK.

A final agreement on the proposal will nevertheless still be far from certain after Monday's meeting, as there are still major differences between the ministers' and the Parliament's positions.

No mandatory front-of-pack labelling

The European Commission had initially proposed a strict mandatory scheme with information provided front-of-pack for five nutrients: energy, salt, sugar, fat and saturated fats. These would have to be shown in amounts of 100g, 100 ml or per portion.

The original text also proposed approving additional national schemes – voluntary or mandatory – that would coexist with EU-level rules.

In its first reading, the European Parliament backed mandatory front-of-pack nutrient labelling but voted in June to delete the entire chapter mentioning national schemes. The House's rapporteur on the dossier, Renate Sommer MEP (European People's Party; Germany), argued that "all should be done by a pan-European regulation".

"We do not want to have additional national labelling schemes," she said.

The Council, which represents the EU's 27 member states, is likely to reject the idea that additional national labelling schemes would need pre-approval at EU level, a diplomatic source explained to EURACTIV. Instead, it suggests giving food operators the freedom to use their own schemes in addition to the EU-level requirements.

These industry schemes would need to comply with criteria set out in the regulation, such as avoiding labelling that misleads consumers. But they would not need to be pre-approved at EU level.

If endorsed, this system would likely be welcomed as good news by the food industry, which has been rolling out its own voluntary scheme across Europe, based on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs).

In addition, the Council wants to leave operators free to choose whether they want to put the nutritional information on the front or back of packaging.

The Council’s stance is likely to infuriate consumer groups, which have been calling for mandatory front-of-pack labelling of key nutrients for years. Health and consumer organisations are calling for a traffic light system giving consumers "at-a-glance information" and a visual warning for high fat, sugar or salt content of a product.

Marketing 'nanofoods'

The Commission's initial proposal did not refer to nanomaterials, but the Parliament voted for mandatory labelling of foods that contain nanoparticles.

EU ministers are set to endorse the House's position at their Monday meeting.

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, European consumers' organisation BEUC called on the food industry to be more transparent regarding the use of nanotechnology in food.

Ruth Veale form BEUC regretted that while the industry made big headlines a few years ago regarding the use of nanomolecules in improving the qualify of food, it has completely shut down communications on the matter since consumers started to ask questions about nanomolecules' impact on health.

Veale also noted that while the food industry across the board categorically denies using, researching or investing in nanotechnologies, a Dutch consumer group only recently found an item containing silica on a nanoscale. The group claims this powder is being used in food products to prevent it from sticking.

The Parliament is also asking for mandatory labelling of appetite-enhancing substances in products like sweeteners, and would require manufacturers to indicate that on the front of packaging.

Country of origin

Indication-of-origin labelling is currently voluntary, except where failure to provide the indication might mislead the consumer as to the true origin of a product. Regarding meat, only beef must carry an origin label. The Commission did not propose any changes to these rules.

But the Parliament asked for mandatory origin labelling to be extended to fish, poultry and dairy products, even when used as an ingredient in processed food, as well as other single-ingredient products.

The Council, in turn, is ready to support an extension of current rules to pork, lamb and poultry, but suggests that the Commission should study, within three years of the entry into force of the legislation, whether country-of-origin labelling should be extended to other products. These would include milk products, single-ingredient products, processed foods and other ingredients when they represent more than 50% of a food product.

Second reading

Described as "a hard bit of work" by officials due to its technicality and complexity, the dossier will be forwarded to the Parliament for a second reading.

But Parliament officials noted that reaching a second reading deal with Council would "need a lot of compromise," in particular within the House itself, because the positions are very different between rapporteur Sommer (EPP) and the Parliament's other political groups.

"In the first reading there was a difference on pretty much all of the issues – so we will have to try to solve these," noted an official.

The Parliament will also need an absolute majority to amend the Council's common position.

As MEPs head for a second reading, the Socialist group in the European Parliament stressed that it very much supports voluntary national schemes and therefore regrets that the House voted to delete any reference to them.

While the Sommer report "does not say that you cannot have national schemes, it deleted rules for them, so businesses could use whatever. Anyone could do whatever they like, what we found a bit strange," said UK Labour MEP Glenis Willmott, the Socialists & Democrats shadow rapporteur on the dossier.

Willmott therefore told EURACTIV she was trying to reintroduce national schemes into the regulation "to ensure that any schemes used are based on sound consumer and scientific evidence".

The Greens in the European Parliament support the Sommer report on food information, though reluctantly, because for them "the glass is only half full," said Helmut Weixler, a spokesperson for the Greens.

"Some positive points are outweighed by some negative points," Weixler told EURACTIV, regretting that rapporteur Sommer "is fiercly opposed to traffic light labelling schemes," which they thinks- are "a clear and easily comprehensible means of consumer information".

The Greens also regret that the Parliament voted against national schemes (voluntary and mandatory). "This is a big loss compared to the Commission's draft," the group noted.

Food packaging and labels, such country of origin, can be used by marketers to encourage potential buyers to purchase products.

In 2008, the European Commission proposed new legislation on providing food information to consumers.

The proposal combines two existing directives into one regulation – a 2000 directive (2000/13/EC) relating to the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs and a 1990 directive (90/496/EEC) on nutrition labelling for foodstuffs.

The aim is to make food labels clearer and more relevant to consumers and set specific requirements for displaying information on processed foods on the front of packaging.

  • 6 Dec. 2010: EU Council of Ministers expected to reach political agreement on the dossier. A Council common position is due to be formalised about 7-8 weeks after the agreement.
  • 2011: Second reading in the European Parliament.
  • 2011: Dossier to return to Council for possible final agreement.

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