Food industry wins battle on ‘traffic light’ labels


The European Parliament yesterday (16 June) voted to make nutrition labelling of pre-packed foods mandatory, but rejected calls by health and consumer organisations' for a traffic light system giving consumers a visual warning for high fat, sugar or salt content of a product.

Meeting in Strasbourg, MEPs even rejected traffic light labels applied at national level.

The Commission's original proposal suggested that national governments should be allowed to decide on visual support systems for nutrition labelling.

The UK, for example, already uses a traffic light system – red, amber and green – to give consumers information at-a-glance about the content of key nutrients relevant to health. Other countries have been studying the possibility of following suit.

The Parliament's position is now being sent to EU member states in the Council and it will be up to them to decide whether they accept such limitations to national rules on the matter.

Meanwhile, the House voted to ask producers of processed foods, such as biscuits or prepared meals, to indicate on the front of packaging the content of energy, salt, sugar, fat and saturated fat.

These should be accompanied by guideline daily amounts (GDAs) and expressed with values per 100g or per 100ml instead of 'per portion', MEPs said. 

The report prepared by the Parliament's environment committee was adopted, with amendments, by 559 votes in favour to 54 against amid 32 abstentions.

Lobbying battle

While consumer organisations and health groups have been calling for mandatory colour-coding for products, industry favours a system of guideline daily amounts (GDAs), which estimates the average daily energy and nutrient requirements for human consumption and provides the percentages contained in a product. The GDA system has already been adopted on a voluntary basis by several large manufacturers.

The lobbying campaigns on both sides have also come under the spotlight. Last week, Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO, claimed that the food and drink industry had invested more than €1 billion in a lobby campaign to block an EU-wide traffic light labelling scheme.

"Food industry lobbyists have bombarded MEPs with information about the labelling scheme, in the biggest lobbying campaign seen in Brussels in recent years," the NGO stated.

The CEO cited an MEP who estimated that industry lobbyists managed to "drown out the message from public health campaigners on a scale of 100 to 1" ahead of yesterday's vote, as MEPs were bombarded with thousands of e-mails, letters, phone calls, reports, lectures and conferences.

The Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries (CIAA), representing food manufacturers, rejected the allegation, saying the one billion euro figure was "quite simply unfounded and untrue".

According to a spokeswoman for the CIAA, the figure, which was first cited in a press article in March, corresponded to the estimated cost of fulfilling the industry's commitment to roll-out its voluntary GDA scheme on their products since 2006 under the EU Platform for Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

She further noted that EU food and drink manufacturers, like many other consumer and interest groups, have a legitimate interest in following this piece of EU legislation and making sure that European policymakers, including MEPs, are "kept abreast of its views on this important draft law".

Country of origin labelling

The Parliament also backed a proposal from the environment committee for mandatory origin labelling of meat, fish, poultry and dairy products, even when used as an ingredient in processed food, as well as of other single-ingredient products.

It asks producers to indicate where animals were born, raised and slaughtered in a bid to allow consumers to favour products from their region and avoid long animal journeys.

Country-of-origin labelling is already compulsory for certain foods, such as beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables.

Label for appetite-enhancing substances

The Parliament also voted for mandatory labelling of trans-fats, foods containing nano-particles and appetite-enhancing substances. Furthermore, if a food contains a sweetener, this must be indicated on the front of the package.

Nutrient profiles

The Parliament voted against amendments by the House's environment committee which sought to delete nutrient profiles from an existing 2007 EU Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods

The regulation requires food manufacturers to display appropriate nutrient profiles in order to prove claims such as "low fat", "helps your body resist stress" or "reduces cholesterol".

If the amendment had been passed, the House would have allowed products high in fat, sugar or salt to bear claims (EURACTIV 15/06/10).

New labels around 2015-2016?

No quick agreement on the draft legislation is expected with the Council and the text is likely to return to Parliament for a second reading.

Once the legislation has been adopted, the food business will have three years to adapt to the rules. Smaller companies, with fewer than 100 employees and an annual turnover of under €5 million, will have five years to comply.

The European Parliament's draftswoman on the file, German MEP Renate Sommer (European People's Party) declared herself "satisfied" overall with the result of the vote and was pleased that MEPs did not support traffic-light labelling.

British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott, spokeswoman on the issue for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, regretted that the traffic light scheme was not adopted and said: "If we're serious about tackling heart disease and obesity, we have to help people understand how much salt, fat and sugar is in their food. That's particularly true for products like ready meals and pre-packed sandwiches, where the label is the only way of knowing how healthy something is."

Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter, vice-president of the European Parliament's environment committee, said that the proposal brings important improvements for consumers who want to be well-informed about what they eat. "The European Parliament today has taken a step forward in the direction of better consumer information, but missed the opportunity for a leap," in particular regarding the traffic-light system, he added.

Schlyter also regretted that "Parliament followed the industry's lobbying efforts and even enlarged the exemption for alcohol at the request of the European People's Party, even though alcohol is also a food with a high calorie content, of which most consumers are not aware".

Dutch leftist MEP Kartika Liotard (Group of the United Left/Nordic Green Left) regretted that "consumers lost out in today's vote" and criticised MEPs for having given in to massive industry lobbying. "How can you be in favour of clear labelling and colour-coded systems for home energy, cars and electronics and not for food and drink?" she asked.

The Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) welcomed "the endorsement by MEPs for GDAs within the scope of the Commission's proposal as a positive step in the right direction" for consumers and the manufacturers who already implement them.

The CIAA also welcomed the rejection of traffic lights and the deletion of the possibility to introduce parallel national schemes, which it said would confuse consumers and further fragment the EU single market, creating additional burdens for industry operating across several markets.  

However, the CIAA is concerned by the amendments adopted on country of origin labelling. "This approach does not take into account the sufficient and existing EU legislation in this area with which manufacturers already fully comply," it said.

Susanne Løgstrup, director of the European Heart Network, regretted the vote's outcome regarding traffic lights and said "it is now up to the Council of Ministers and individual member states to help people make healthier choices, which they can do by allowing a traffic-light system in their countries".

Monique Goyens, director-general of the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC), said: "Despite being presented with a wealth of independent research confirming that the vast majority of consumers wanted the colour-coding system, MEPs have mystifyingly voted against it. One wonders how we are to convince lawmakers that the fight against obesity and the battle to improve public health needs to start with action today, not tomorrow. There is no doubt that today's vote is a very, very serious setback."

But BEUC welcomed the fact that MEPs maintained labelling of nano products and a provision on nutrient profiles that regulate the labelling of health and nutrition claims on food packaging.

The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) welcomed the fact that nutrition labelling was only made mandatory for processed foods and that non pre-packed products were excluded from labelling requirements.

The association, however, sees as "a slap in SMEs' face" the introduction of compulsory country-of-origin labelling for all foodstuffs, including food coming from other EU countries. UEAPME's food policy advisor Ludger Fischer argued that such a requirement "will trigger enormous complications for small businesses changing ingredients very frequently" and called on the Council to reject this clause "if it is serious about protecting the distinctiveness of typical European fresh foodstuffs".

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.

Industry and consumer groups are broadly supportive of this agenda but opinions vary on, for example, whether nutritional information should be presented per portion or per 100ml or 100g and whether it should be supported by a visual scheme, like colour-coding or guideline daily amounts (GDAs).

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