MEPs vote to bar changes in nutritional labels

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MEPs voted by a wide margin today (2 February) to ditch a European Commission plan for giving food producers new choices to promote products as having less fat, sugar or salt.

The vote came two days after members of a parliamentary committee recommended against the proposal to add new nutritional categories to a five-year-old regulation on health claims made on foods. The EU executive’s recommendation would have allowed food companies to claim that reformulated foods have a least 15% less fat, sugar or salt than earlier recipes.

Matthias Groote, who chairs the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, welcomed the vote.

"I am pleased that the European Parliament has defended the interests of health-conscious consumers, who need to be able to make clear comparisons when shopping for food," the German MEP (Socialists and Democrats) said after the vote. MEPs voted 393 to 161 to block the EU executive’s proposal, 21 abstained.

The action was backed by health and consumer groups that argued the proposed changes to food labels could deceive shoppers into believing they were getting much healthier food. Existing rules require goods promoted, for example, as having “reduced sugar” to have at least 30% less of the ingredient than comparable products.

On Tuesday, German centre-right MEP Renate Sommer, the parliamentary rapporteur on food labelling, said the EU executive's proposals “would mislead consumers and producers would only have used it to boost sales".

But a leading industry association, FoodDrinkEurope, said that blocking the Commission proposals is a slap at giving consumers information about nutritional improvements to products.

The group’s president, Jesús Serafín Pérez, said the vote "serves a ‘bitter pill’ to food operators who have strived to voluntarily reformulate their products in line with consumer taste and public health expectations over the years.”

The Commission recommended adding the new “percentage less” labels to two dozen existing nutritional claims that appear on food labels, such as “low fat”, “fat-free” or “sugar-free”.

In proposing the new options last June, the Commission said it sought to provide more consistency across the EU and cut red tape to encourage innovation in food choices.

 

French MEP Sophie Auconie (European People’s Party) said she regretted vote outcome.

"While the European Parliament is always promoting the necessity to fight against obesity, to reduce the content of sugar, salt, fat, etc. in food products, today it took the incomprehensible position to reject a label which would have encouraged the food industry to go in the direction of benefitting the health of consumers.”

However, Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter said:"The EP has today voted against misleading food claims and sent the Commission back to the drawing board. ... The Commission should now come forward with a new proposal excluding the rejected nutrition claim."

Monique Goyens, who heads the European consumer group BEUC, said: "We welcome the European Parliament vote to veto the ‘x% less’ claim. Consumers do not need to be confronted with yet another nutrition claim especially one which is misleading and adds to confusion when trying to buy and eat more healthily. What they need is for industry to put public health first and step up their reformulation efforts.”

Food packages often carry health or nutritional claims, such as "reduced cholesterol" or "low fat". Some of these claims can be misleading to consumers who cannot interpret scientific nutritional tables.

EU legislation on health and nutrition claims made on food, which entered into force in July 2007, introduced procedures for the substantiation of claims and restricted the use of certain types of claims.

In 2011, the EU executive proposed changes to the regulation, but it has run into opposition among MEPs - backed by consumer and health groups - claiming the changes could mislead consumers into thinking they were making healthier food choices. On 2 February, MEPs voted overwhelmingly to block the changes.

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