Alcohol labelling proposal fails to end debate on calories

The publication of the industry’s position triggered the strong reaction of public health NGOs which said that the industry “failed” to responsibly inform EU consumers. [Shutterstock]

The alcohol industry presented on 12 March their self-regulatory proposal on labelling, focusing on “flexibility” for wine, beer, spirits and cider. Alcohol makers will be free to decide whether to place information on the label, online or both.

But the industry did not agree on a long-standing dispute over how to inform consumers about the number of calories contained in alcoholic beverages.

If the industry’s proposal does not satisfy the European Commission, the EU executive will launch an impact assessment to review available options, a spokesperson said.

The spirits industry claims that caloric  information should be provided “per glass” and not per 100ml, which is the legal measurement currently in force for all drinks across Europe.

The spirits industry argues that the 100ml measure is misleading because few people would drink that much. The quantity is in fact largely above what’s recommended for health and safety reasons. Spirits are usually served in 30ml servings.

Alcohol industry’s labelling proposal prioritises ‘flexibility’

Producers will decide how best to convey alcohol information – either on the label and online or just on the internet, has learnt.

‘Different philosophies’

But brewers do not share the same view.

Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, Secretary-General of the Brewers of Europe, told EURACTIV that the joint platform refers explicitly to 100ml.

“There are sensitivities in different sectors but there is a joint agreement, which is laid down that 100ml is the reference as it’s provided in the regulation on the provision of food information to consumers. When it comes to implementation we might see different approaches.”

Bergeron insisted that the alcohol industry should stick to the legislation.

“We have always been strong proponents of the simplest approach that would be helpful for the consumers,” he said, adding: “100ml is legal and an appropriate proportion size.”

Ulrich Adam, Director General of SpiritsEurope, talked about “different philosophies” and emphasised that 100ml is misleading.

Adam said the spirits industry will ask the EU executive to consider allowing energy on spirits labels to be given more “prominently per serving size than per 100ml” and also requires that “all alcoholic beverages not habitually consumed in 100ml servings provide energy per serving”.

“For us, success is that consumers know what they will have inside and not what is on the bottle. We will always label energy information per portion and as required per 100ml,” he added, underlining that this key in order to reach the informative purpose of the legislation.

The “flexible” proposal

In the proposal, there is a common part accompanied by four sectorial annexes that will explain in more detail what each sector will do (beer, wine, spirits, cider).

The general principle is that individual producers will be able to decide what information they provide on the label and online. Others, including the high number of SMEs and micro-enterprises that produce alcoholic beverages, are likely to use online means only.

The proposal claims that offline information will be easily accessible from the label itself, either by a web-link, a QR code, a barcode or through other direct means with the use of smart technologies.

The industry also pointed out that a “robust” monitoring system would be put in place while the first report of the implementation will be submitted in March 2021.

The European Commission welcomed the industry’s efforts to find a collective deal. “The Commission is determined to find an equitable solution that offers to the EU citizens enhanced information on the alcohol they drink,” a European Commission spokesperson commented.

Last week, a Commission official told EURACTIV that the industry proposal should meet consumer needs and expectations; however, the EU executive is still unclear regarding the increasing role of online labelling.

Commission still vague about online alcohol labelling

Consumer needs and expectations should be the main drivers in defining alcohol labelling, a European Commission spokesperson told when asked about the effectiveness of online labelling,  an option the alcohol industry wants to introduce.

NGOs react negatively

The publication of the industry’s position triggered the strong reaction of public health NGOs which said that the industry “failed” to responsibly inform EU consumers.

“Consumers have a right to know. Often, they may not realise that many alcoholic beverages contain a lot of sugar. This fact shouldn’t be hidden somewhere online,” said Dr Jacques de Haller, President of Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME).

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) lashed out at the industry calling for binding EU-wide rules.

“The industry is granting itself too much flexibility to decide how much information consumers can see. As consumers make shopping decisions in a matter of seconds, it is unrealistic to expect they will take a few minutes to check online how calorific wine or vodka is,” BEUC said, adding that more than 3 out 10 consumers do not own a smartphone.

The industry, on the other hand, claims that online there is much more space to include more information for consumers. It also insists that in a digitising world an increasing number of consumers rely on online information for the products they consume.

Carlsberg’s CEO Cees ’t Hart stressed that his company has committed to voluntarily list ingredients and calories on the labels of all its beers per 100ml.

“80% of our beer in Europe now carries this information, and we will continue to implement this commitment with speed,” he commented, adding that this will apply globally and not only in Europe.

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