EU lawmakers reject colour-coded system for food labels

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

MEPs have rejected calls for a mandatory EU-wide 'traffic light' system for food labels similar to the one currently applied in the UK, much to the disappointment of European consumer and health groups.

The European Parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee voted against the introduction of a compulsory 'traffic light' labelling system, which would have complemented the system of guideline daily amounts (GDAs) favoured by the food industry.

Voting yesterday (16 March) on a European Commission proposal to combine existing EU rules on food labelling and nutritional information into one new regulation, MEPs agreed that key nutritional information such as energy content, fat, carbohydrates, sugar and salt must be displayed on front-of-pack labels. They also added proteins, fibre and transfats to the mandatory list.

MEPs also added specific rules on the displaying of energy content, judging this to be the most important information for consumers.

The regulation should only lay down general rules on the displaying of nutritional information and not prescribe any specific system, thus allowing member states to use or adopt their own labelling rules, the committee said.

A cross-party coalition of MEPs from the socialist group (S&D), the far-left (GUE/NGL), the Greens and the liberal group (ALDE) attempted to include mandatory traffic light labelling, but these amendments were rejected.

The committee, which had debated the issue for 18 months against the backdrop of an ongoing battle between consumer groups and manufacturers, adopted its report only after some 800 amendments were voted upon.

Positions

German MEP Renate Sommer (European People’s Party), the European Parliament's rapporteur on the file, wants mandatory nutritional facts on food labels but views the traffic light system as over-simplified.

"Colour symbols have not got any scientific background and the limits and thresholds would be purely arbitrary. Sugar-free coke, for example, would get the 'green light' as it has no sugar. Natural apple juice, however, would get 'the red light' as it contains glucose. A nutrition facts box, however, conveys all necessary information for the consumer," said Sommer.

"We endorsed a blue print today which serves the interests of both the consumers and the producers of foodstuffs," she concluded.

British MEP Glenis Willmott (Socialists & Democrats) said that she will continue to gather support for the colour-coded system.

"We know that people want this kind of information and health professionals are clear that it would help in the battle against obesity, heart disease and diabetes. So why are manufacturers so afraid of telling people what's in their food? We'll continue to do whatever we can to help shoppers make an informed choice about what they eat and drink," she said.

Swedish MEP Carl Schlyter (Greens/EFA), shadow rapporteur on the report, is also behind the traffic light scheme. ''We, the Greens/EFA, will do our best to improve this report for the plenary vote that will take place in May,'' he stated.

BEUC, the European consumers' organisation, lamented the committee's decision not to introduce mandatory colour coding, calling it a ''severe blow'' for consumers and public health in Europe.

Stressing the growing obesity problem across Europe, BEUC said that EU-wide research has proven that consumers find colour coding the easiest way to make informed choices on healthy eating.

The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) also expressed disappointment over the outcome, claiming that MEPs must go further to protect the health of vulnerable citizens, especially children.

EPHA, which is strongly in favour of the traffic light system, noted the closeness of the vote and urged the Parliament to reconsider when it comes to the plenary vote in May.

CIAA, the confederation of the food and drink industries of the EU, said it was pleased that the GDA system was recognised in the proposal and endorsed by MEPs.

The confederation is concerned, however, that an overload of information on food packages will lead to ''total'' consumer confusion and called for more clarity in time for the plenary vote.

Background

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 in one regulation.

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

Timeline

  • May 2010: First reading in Parliament plenary.

Further Reading