‘Information overload’ feared ahead of vote on food labelling

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

As MEPs prepare to vote on new food labelling rules, manufacturers are concerned that last-minute compromises could see two types of nutritional information appear on the front of packaging, which could overwhelm consumers.

The food industry and consumer groups agree in principle that some form of mandatory labelling is required to help the public to make informed choices.

However, there are differing views on what kind of information should be provided. While consumers are demanding front-of-pack data on salt, sugar, total fat and saturated fat, manufacturers would prefer to display energy information – calorie content – only, leaving companies to decide on any additional information that could be provided.

Debate also continues on whether the nutritional content should be presented per portion or per 100g. For foods like yogurts or multi-packs of chocolate bars, there is consensus that 'per portion' information is practical.

The issue is not so clear when dealing with packets of biscuits or bottles of soft drinks, where it is difficult to define what constitutes an average portion. In these cases, some argue that expressing nutritional information per 100g or 100ml makes it easier for consumers to compare competing products.

In practice, companies have often shied away from this, preferring instead to give nutritional content 'per portion' or 'per serving' based on an estimate of what customers would typically eat.

Balancing transparency with simplicity

While the principle of sharing information with consumers is accepted by all stakeholders, manufacturers fear overwhelming the public with complicated data.

Speaking after a debate on food labelling in Brussels yesterday (2 March), industry sources told EURACTIV the worst outcome would be if MEPs decided to force companies to include both forms of information on the front of packs.

This could be confusing for consumers, most of whom make purchasing choices at the point of sale, according to senior company executives.

There is a general concern that the proliferation of labelling on nutrition, genetic modification, ethical sourcing, and eco-friendly claims will undermine efforts to share simple information with the public.

They point out that detailed figures are always available on the back of packaging for those seeking more information.

Consumers want information but have limited knowledge

Research by the French affiliate of BEUC, the European Consumers' Organisation, show that 75% of those surveyed are interested in nutrition. However, 84% of consumers could not explain what a carbohydrate is.

Consumer organisations have made clear that mandatory labelling is the only way to ensure that all EU citizens benefit from improved standards of information sharing.

While a large proportion of foods now include nutritional information, those which do not are more likely to be products which are high in sugar or salt, according to consumer research.

Introducing hard EU legislation will also help iron out inconsistencies between member states where industry self-regulation has delivered mixed results.

Industry working to plug trust deficit

Beyond industry circles a consensus has emerged between policymakers, legislators and consumers that self-regulation is not an effective way to ensure accurate nutritional information is included on all food packaging.

While major food manufacturers are seen to have put considerable investment into improving nutritional information, the push for legislation has arisen due to patchy implementation of industry guidelines.

Efforts to introduce a Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) on food packaging have sometimes been undone by companies intent on using the labelling system to their commercial advantage.

Holger Krahmer, a German Liberal MEP, accused some firms of using the GDA system for marketing purposes rather than as an information tool.

There is also considerable scepticism about an industry proposal to require companies only to print information on calorie content on the front of packaging, and allow manufacturers to decide whether to include additional information.

This, according to Robert Madelin, director-general of the European Commission's health and consumer affairs department, is "a gross distortion" of nutritional information. He said it could breed mistrust between food companies and the public.

Madelin also said providing nutritional information according to portion size could leave too much scope for variation. He said there is a suspicion that some companies are giving portion data based on what people should consume rather than the amount they actually consume.

He challenged the industry to "open your books" and share internal research on consumption habits in order to counter the perception that companies are performing a "three-card trick" by using idealistic portion sizes rather than realistic portions.

Geoff Thompson, representing the CIAA, the European food and drink industry body, said he could not commit to taking up Madelin's challenge on behalf of the industry, but said "we need to understand what's causing the lack of trust and address it".

Industry sources speaking to EURACTIV after the CIAA-hosted event said they believed they have shared all relevant research on consumption habits but would be willing to go further if possible.

Consumer groups and industry are keen to work through remaining difficulties on the contentious food labelling issue, although consumer representatives would prefer the European Commission to act as a neutral chair in further discussions.

Robert Madelin, director-general of the European Commission's health and consumer affairs department, DG Sanco, said the underlying goal of the proposal on food labelling is to make progress across the EU for all consumers.

The voluntary approach to labelling did not deliver as much as had been hoped in all member states, he said, although he accepted that a lot had been achieved by proactive companies in several countries.

He said that in some products, such as biscuits, portion size is more useful than weight, provided this information is provided "honestly".

The Commission representative also expressed readiness to support a process that would help stakeholders converge, if asked, and if industry is ready to share its market research.

German Liberal MEP Holger Krahmer said the food labelling directive is "probably the most important consumer legislation MEPs will debate this term". However, he said there is no perfect labelling system to deliver everything stakeholders want.

He said industry should act responsibly when it comes to portion size, noting that some manufacturers had fallen short in the past.

Krahmer rejected the notion of using a colour-coded "traffic light system". "The traffic light system does not inform and tends to act more as a warning – which is not the job of a labelling system," he said.

However, he was equally tough on the industry-favoured system of using Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) to communicate nutritional information.

"Some parts of industry want to use GDA not to inform but as a marketing tool. It undermines the credibility of the system if you do that," said Krahmer.

Olivier Andrault, scientific director at UFC-Que Choisir, a French consumer group, said mandatory EU legislation is required due to the diverging views on labelling between member states and within the food industry.

"We want one single EU simplified nutritional system with compulsory front-of-pack information that consumers can understand at a glance," he said.

Andrault proposed forcing companies to include just four pieces of nutritional information: total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. He said energy is not relevant information and can give consumers a misleading impression of how healthy a product might be.

He also advocated using colour-coding to help consumers understand the numbers presented on food packs. If GDAs were to be used, Andrault added, this would only be acceptable in conjunction with a colour-coded system. He was also adamant that portion size should reflect the quantity "normally consumed".

Barbara Livingstone, professor of nutrition at the University of Ulster, said portion size remains a vague concept and is not well understood by the public.

"Many people do not trust the definition of portion size. They think they are unrealistically small," she said. Smaller portions and food marketed as being low in fat can lead consumers to eat more than normal. "Reduced-fat or reduced-energy products have the potential to backfire because people take this as a license to overeat," she said.

Livingstone said the public wants simple, consistent information and that expressing nutritional data per 100g or 100ml is "meaningless for most consumers" and is only useful when comparing two similar products.

She also dismissed consumer groups' suggestion that energy information should not be listed on the front of packs, saying it was inconceivable that calorie content could be omitted at a time when Europe faces a looming obesity epidemic.

Geoff Thompson, food and consumer policy committee chair at the CIAA, the European food and drink industry body, said he believes the industry's GDA scheme has been a success. Companies using the system know how consumers have responded to it.

"If consumers were unhappy I think we might have had mailbags of complaints but that has not been the case," he said.

Thompson said the system is not perfect and committed to engaging with stakeholders to iron out problems.

"We believe that factual nutrition information per portion increases its practical use for consumers and our members are working to develop a consistent approach for declaring portion information for the purposes of GDA labelling," he said.

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 and 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 whether nutritional information should be presented per portion or per 100ml or 100g.

The proposal is currently being debated by the European Parliament's committee on the environment, public health and food safety.

  • 16 March: MEPs on European Parliament's food safety committee to vote on proposal.

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