Food Information for Consumers

“Traffic-light” labelling may soon be on its way out again if the European Parliament gets its way. The EP has also voted to require calorie information in calories instead of joules, implement a “Guideline Daily Amounts” system, require country-of-origin on meat and poultry packaging, and except alcoholic beverages from the whole scheme because it is a “stimulant” and not food.

This is the EP’s response to a new legislative proposal from the Commission entitled ‘Regulation on the provision of food information to consumers’. The proposed regulation aims to determine what information should be included on food packages and how it should be presented so as to help EU consumers make better informed decisions. If adopted, it would apply to all foods that have to be delivered to the final consumer and supplied to caterers. It would also make labeling of nutritional information on the front of pre-packaged processed food mandatory. The proposal will, according to the Commission, make the circulation of food within the EU easier.

The new proposal combines two earlier Directives into one Regulation. The Commission says the proposal is consistent with the policies and objectives of the EU by reducing the administrative burden and improving the competitiveness of the European food industry by simplifying the regulatory process. This is done in combination with ensuring the safety of food, the maintenance of a high level of public health protection and the recognition that global aspects need to be taken into consideration.

The proposal has been discussed in the European Parliament and informally accepted by the European Council. The proposal was adopted by the European Parliament on 16th June. If the European Council also adopts the proposal it will become EU law.

Background

Attempts to make the circulation of food within the EU easier go back to the first horizontal legislative instrument on food labeling (Directive 79/112/EEC). However, since the protection of consumers’ rights emerged over time as a specific topic for the European Community, an evaluation of the then contemporary state of affairs was called for. This lead DG SANCO to evaluate, in close co-operation with stakeholders, the existing food labeling legislation. The evaluation was done in 2003 and by 2004 the conclusion of the evaluation, which identified the importance of a future proposal concerning food legislation, was published.

There is widespread agreement within the EU that nutrition labeling is important as a means to support consumers’ ability to choose a balanced diet. This subsequently led to a White Paper on a Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity related health issues. The paper emphasised the need for consumers to have access to clear, consistent and evidence-based information.

In addition to these developments it has also been pointed out that the differences between labeling systems used in different Member States (MS) might be a potential barrier to the circulation of food within the EU. It is therefore the combination of information that should be made available to consumers and the easing up of any potential barriers to trade (i.e. improving the competitiveness of the European food industry) that underlie the proposal in question.

The European Parliament debated the food labelling proposal in mid-June and adopted its amended text with an overwhelming majority.

What will happen if the proposal is adopted?

Since the proposal aims to modernise, simplify and clarify current food labelling within the EU, the proposal will:
• Create a clearer and more streamlined regulatory framework by merging two existing Directives (Dir 2000/13/EC and Dir 90/496/EEC) into a single piece of legislation (regulation).
• Get rid of the current differences that exist between Member States’ labeling systems.
• Make the difference between mandatory and voluntary information clear.
• Make clear food business operators’ responsibilities regarding food labeling. 
• Ensure that the information provided on food labels is easy for consumers to understand.
• Ensure that there will be a minimum print size for the mandatory information.
• Ensure that, even though labelling relating to where food comes from will remain voluntary, providing the location will become mandatory if the failure to give such information might mislead consumers. It also clarifies the conditions under which Member States may adopt national rules on origin labeling.
• Make nutrition labelling on the front of the pack mandatory for energy, fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars and salt expressed as amounts per 100g or per 100 ml. Nutrients from a defined list may be declared voluntarily.

Outcome of European Parliament Vote on 16th June

The plenary vote on 16th June made established that, in addition to the proposal outlined above, the proposal that Council will be voting on will: 
• Not allow for a ‘traffic light’ labelling system since the attempts to include it in the draft report in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and in the plenary session were rejected. This may mean that the UK will have to get rid of its current ‘traffic light’ system (if the Council accepts the current proposal) since Member States will not be allowed to have their own national schemes.
• Ensure that the measurement for the content of food packages will be made in calories and not joules since most people do not understand the latter
• Not include alcoholic beverages in the labeling system since it is viewed as a stimulant and not food
• Implement a Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system (which basis its recommendation on what an average forty year old woman should eat). This might have a contradictory impact on how nutrition labelling on the front of food packages (as outlined above) will be outlined. 
• Ensure that the country of origin is made clear on the labels on meat and poultry packages

Next Steps

Although the Council has informally accepted the proposal it will have to formally vote on it and if no amendments are made to it, it will be incorporated into the Official Journal of the European Union and thus become EU law. However, according to Renate Sommer (rapporteur of the report from the ENVI Committee) , the Council will not accept the current proposal and she does not expect a common position until February 2011, at which point it will go to a second reading.