Following a two-year delay, the European Commission presented its proposal on alcohol information on Monday (13 March), giving the alcoholic beverages industry an additional year to come up with a “self-regulatory” proposal.
Under the current regime, alcoholic beverages are not obliged to indicate the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration, which is not the case for other foods [See background].
An important element of the Commission’s report is that it recognised there was an increasing need for consumers to be aware of the alcoholic beverages they choose.
“In the case of alcoholic beverages, it cannot be assumed that consumers are necessarily aware of the generally various ingredients used in the production process and of their nutritional value,” the report noted.
“The Commission has not identified objective grounds that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutrition information on alcoholic beverages or a differentiated treatment for some alcoholic beverages, such as ‘alcopops’,” the executive emphasised.
A self-regulatory proposal
But despite the delay and the pressure for a clear framework on alcohol ingredients, the European Commission stressed that an additional year should be granted to the alcohol industry to develop its own voluntary initiatives providing a list of ingredients and nutrition declaration.
“It, therefore, invites the industry to respond to consumers’ expectations and present within a year of adoption of this report a self-regulatory proposal that would cover the entire sector of alcoholic beverages,” the report noted, adding that the executive will then assess the industry’s proposal.
In the event that the Juncker Commission is not satisfied with the industry proposal, then it will launch an impact assessment, which will consider both regulatory as well as non-regulatory options, resulting in a quite lengthy process.
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) welcomed the Commission’s recognition of the need for better information on alcohol, but strongly criticised the additional year granted to the industry.
Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC, commented, “Today consumers can know what is in a bottle of milk or fruit juice, but not in a bottle of whisky or beer.”
Goyens, also, expressed doubt over the practical added value of voluntary initiatives claiming that they won’t manage to bridge the “unacceptable” information gap between alcoholic and other drinks.
“Why wait a year to consider binding rules? They are the only way forward if we want all consumers across the EU to be equally informed about what their wine or vodka contains,” she said, and wondered why alcoholic beverages should get a special treatment.
The BEUC also pointed out that a pint of beer is as loaded with calories as a chocolate bar and stressed that at a time of rising obesity, mandatory information on nutrients and ingredients was essential to help consumers choose what and how much to drink.
In a recent interview with euractiv.com, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis noted that as at least one in three cancers is preventable our first line of attack is to address the risk factors.
“This is achieved not only through EU legislation on, for example, pesticides, air quality, tobacco products and exposure to carcinogens at work, but also through platforms and projects to address alcohol consumption, unhealthy diets, and obesity.”
Can the industry cooperate?
According to the report, the alcohol industry should come up with a self-regulatory proposal but there are still significant issues that divide them.
A “hot potato” is the quantity of alcohol indicated on a label.
The spirits industry (spiritsEUROPE) claims that information on calories contained in alcoholic beverages should be provided “per glass” and not per 100ml, which is the legal calorie measurement for all drinks across Europe.
The Brewers of Europe, which represents national brewers’ associations from 29 European countries, believes that the starting point is the 100ml, which is in accordance with the law, and the “per glass” provision could be complementary.
“We will sit down with the beer and wine guys, and others in the sector, to see how feasible it will be to find a common solution. We will enter those discussions in a constructive way, but frankly, if the brewers insist that 100ml is the appropriate reference, we will not agree,” spiritsEUROPE Director General Paul Skehan told EURACTIV.
“Comparing 3 times the standard serving of whiskey with less than half of a small beer is not a fair or useful comparison for any consumer and will mislead rather than inform,” he noted, emphasising that it “would be like comparing a Maserati to a Lada by basing your comparison on the weight of the two cars!”
Reacting to the Commission’s report, the EU brewers stressed, “The 100ml reference is laid down in the Regulation for all beverages, non-alcoholic and alcoholic, and widely understood by consumers across the EU as the robust standard for comparing the nutritional contents of different drinks.”
“When there are anyway no standard portions for any alcoholic beverage across the EU, a solely portion-based scheme can never replace the 100ml reference,” Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, Secretary General of The Brewers of Europe, argued.
“EU law, in any cases, allows companies to add relevant portion size references, provided they are not misleading and are included alongside the 100ml reference,” he added.
On or off the label?
Another issue is the way this information will be provided, either on the label or online.
The industry has already launched voluntary initiatives providing consumers with alcohol information in both ways. The EU brewers, for instance, expect that by the end of 2017, over 60% of new beer volumes hitting the shelves across Europe will carry this information, on labels and also via online platforms.
The EU spirits industry agrees that the mechanism for providing the information should be best left to the producer.
“While some may prefer to re-design labels to convey the material, others see more scope for information being provided using modern, digital means,” it said in a statement.