This article is part of our special report Alcohol in the EU’s policies.
SPECIAL REPORT / Beer drinkers across Europe will soon be able to find out the detailed calorie and nutrition content of their drinks after four of the world’s biggest brewers announced last week that they will make the information available.
The EU’s Food Information to Consumers Regulation entered into force on 13 December 2014, but alcoholic beverages was exempted from labelling obligations pending a Commission report.
The report, which was due to be adopted by 13 December 2014, was delayed. It is still unclear when it will be published.
As a result of the deadlock, industry advocates The Brewers of Europe announced that the beer sector had committed to go beyond the existing EU regulation when it comes to informing consumers about ingredients and nutrition information.
“We are not pressed upon by the EU regulators to (do) this, so it’s a voluntary commitment which goes beyond the current regulation,” said Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, the Secretary-General of the Brewers of Europe.
“It’s a major commitment, because the brewing sector is not a couple of companies here and there – it’s over 5,000 breweries across Europe,” Bergeron said when the initiative was made public last week (26 March). “Beer is brewed in every single country. So this commitment did require a lot of preparation on the part of The Brewers of Europe,” Bergeron told an event organised by the EURACTIV Institute where the initiative was launched.
European consumers have a right to know about the nutritional content of their drinks. While the beer industry has provided information in the past, brewers are now “stepping it up”, Bergeron explained.
The EU executive welcomes the industry’s move to provide the information voluntarily.
“This is a positive step enhancing consumer information,” the Commission said in e-mailed comments.
The Commission has confirmed that it was working on its report, which is now long overdue. Renate Sommer, a centre-right MEP and the former rapporteur on food labelling rules in the European Parliament, said a major sticking point is the definition of so-called ‘alcopop’ drinks, which mix alcohol with soda or juice.
Bergeron admitted that there has been some impatience with the Commission on the part of the brewers. While the beer industry’s self-regulation move had several motivations, he said the beer industry now hopes it can lead to a consultation with the EU’s executive.
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) also welcomed the brewers’ initiative as a step forward. This was especially significant given the current political climate at the Commission “where we see more and more that ‘better regulation’ means no regulation or deregulation”, said Ilaria Passarani, the Head of the Food and Health Department at BEUC.
“We know that there is only a small chance that the Commission will come up with a proposal on food labelling for alcoholic beverages anytime soon. In this context, we welcome the initiative of The Brewers of Europe. We hope that other producers of alcoholic beverages will follow this example,” Passarani told EURACTIV.
Renate Sommer said that part of the difficulty was to decide whether to make labelling voluntary or mandatory. Member states with large wine producing sectors are opposed to mandatory labelling, saying it could cause headaches for their national producers.
New labelling across the sector?
Sommer also suggested that mandatory labelling could cause problems across the entire alcohol sector.
“There is a difference between beer, spirits and wine and the mandatory labelling says it has to be labelled always per 100 ml, but this might mislead the consumer regarding the consumption of spirits. You shouldn’t drink 100 ml of spirits as a unit,” Sommer told EURACTIV.
Her view was supported by SpiritsEurope, which represents the spirits industry.
“We are also in favour of an open dialogue for the assessment of the most appropriate method of provision of each information, that is, whether on- or off-label. But that information must work for consumers, not mislead them,” said Paul Skehan, the Director-General of SpiritsEurope.
Skehan stated that calorie information for alcoholic beverages per 100 ml portions would maybe serve the interest of the beer industry, but risked misleading the public and udnermine messages about responsible drinking.
“While 100 ml 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,” SpiritsEurope said.
Bergeron, however, pointed out that 100 ml is currently a regulatory point of reference and that consumers expect to make like-for-like comparisons. He suggested adding a serving size reference or a consumption size unit in addition to the 100 ml reference.
Costs for small companies
Another sticking point is that detailed labelling obligations might favour big industrial producers over small wine or beer producers, Sommer pointed out.
Industrial producers have standardised products with predictable ingredients while drinks coming out of micro-breweries and small wineries may vary greatly, making labelling trickier, Sommer remarked. The laboratory research this would entail could prove too costly for them, she stressed. And creating new labels and having them printed would also add costs for small producers.
Bergeron was less worried, saying The Brewers of Europe will support their members in calculating the nutritional value of their products. He also said individual beer companies will be given time to comply with the new industry-wide labelling requirements. The pledge, he pointed out, should be a motivational factor for European brewers.