EU food labelling rules ready, new round to start


After the European Parliament adopted earlier this week (6 July) new rules on food labelling, the EU executive is now set to start working on excluded dossiers, including alcohol and transfats.

The final deal struck between the EU institutions on the proposal regarding food information to consumers was broadly welcomed by various stakeholders, amid regrets by some over the deletion of front-of-pack nutritional declarations from the initial European Commission proposal.

EU Health Commissioner John Dalli said that the deletion "reduces the benefits for consumers" of including nutritional information on food packaging.

Dalli's regrets were echoed by the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC). While BEUC believes consumers will now be able to make more informed choices on food products, "the regulation will not enable them to choose the healthiest products at a glance," said Monique Goyens, its director-general.

Along the same lines, the Parliament's European United Left/Nordic Green Left group pointed to the fact that companies will place information on their preferred levels of nutrients on the front of packs only if they feel like it. "Manufacturers can now use the values per serving to give the impression that there are fewer calories in the product," said Dutch leftist MEP Kartika Liotard.

Meanwhile, the outcome is good news for the food industry, which has been rolling out its own voluntary scheme based on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs), which estimate average daily energy requirements and give calorie information per portion.

Increase in food prices

Talking to the press after the final vote yesterday, the Parliament's draftswoman, German MEP Renate Sommer (European People's Party) noted that final consumer prices for food might increase as a result of the new rules.

As the producers and the handlers of the goods have to spend more on labelling in the future, this price will in the end “come down to the consumer”, she said.

Sommer also noted that the new requirements will be more expensive for small producers.

Meanwhile UEAPME, the voice of Europe’s SMEs declared itself “overall pleased” with the outcome, but said that extending the compulsory country of origin labelling to meat, and, in the future, to milk and dairy products, “will generate problems for small food operators that change ingredients very frequently.”

According to the EU food and drink industry main lobby FoodDrinkEurope it is difficult to know how exactly the new rules will impact on the competitiveness of Europe’s food and drink industry.

Next on legislative menu: alcohol, transfats, aspartame

To the regret of many, the final deal excludes, for now, mandatory labelling requirements for alcoholic beverages and transfats. Country of origin labelling of milk and dairy products as well as meat in processed foods is also postponed until after a Commission impact assessment on the matter.

Commissioner Dalli said he regrets to see that alcoholic beverages have been totally exempted from the ingredient and nutrition labelling requirements.

“I believe that consumers are entitled to receive appropriate information when they consume alcoholic beverages,” he said, adding that he would “strive to ensure that we strike the right balance when we re-examine the issue in the near future".

Indeed the EU executive should by end 2014 examine whether alcoholic beverages, including alcopops, should in the future reveal their ingredients and energy values, and propose amendments to the rules adopted yesterday.

In parallel, by end 2014, the Commission will also carry out an evaluation on the presence of so-called "trans fats" in food and may decide to come forward with a legislative proposal on trans fats, including clearer labelling and restrictions on their use. Denmark and Austria have already introduced such restrictions.

In a related development, the Commission asked the EU's food safety watchdog (EFSA) this spring to conduct a full re-evaluation of aspartame by July 2012.

“In the light of the EFSA opinion, the Commission will consider whether there is need to review the existing legislation on aspartame, and if necessary will undertake appropriate legal action to revise maximum permitted levels and required provision of relevant information to consumers,” said Dalli.

Sustainability criteria for palm oil use in food?

The new rules adopted by the Parliament also require manufacturers to indicate the origin of vegetable oils used in food to enable consumer to check, in particular, whether the product in question contains palm oil.

Such labelling was made mandatory due to lawmakers’ concerns over palm oil plantations that endanger rainforests and wildlife and “a huge amount of lobby” done to protect the habitats of orangutans, noted the House’s rapporteur MEP Sommer.

But the European Association for Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) – one of those seeking to protect tropical forest habitats from being destroyed for palm oil plantations – would like to go even further in regulating the controversial oil and see sustainability criteria set for the “estimated 90% of palm oil imported into the EU for the production of food and beauty products”, along the lines of similar criteria already set for the use of palm oil in the production of biofuels.

In 2008, the European Commission proposed new legislation on providing food information to consumers. The proposal combines existing rules on food labelling and nutritional information into one regulation.

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

After three years of negotiations between the Commission, Council and Parliament,

informal trialogues between the three EU institutions were organised this spring over a period of ten weeks to reach agreement at second reading and avoid a conciliation process.

Agreement on a compromise text was struck between the Council and Parliament representatives on 14 June, after which the Assembly's different political groups gave an initial go-ahead to sign the deal. The text was then endorsed by member-state ambassadors on 22 June.

  • Early Oct. 2011: After legal checks of the text, the Council will adopt the new regulation.
  • By end Oct. 2011: The Act is expected to be published in the Official Journal and enter into force.
  • Once the legislation is adopted, food businesses will have three years to adapt to the rules. They will have two more years, so five years in total, to apply the rules on the nutritional declaration.
  • By 2015: Some of the new rules must be applied (information on vegetable oils, allergens, country of origin).
  • By 2017: Mandatory nutritional declaration must be indicated on food products.

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