Correspondent's Choice

This story about food labelling was published by EurActiv on 2nd December 2010.

Member states are nearing a deal on new food labelling rules that would leave wiggle room for industry to use their own labelling schemes and choose whether to show nutritional information on the front or back of a product’s packaging.

The 27 EU ministers in charge of consumer affairs are set to reach a political agreement on the proposal at a meeting next Monday (6 December).

The expected deal comes after a first reading in the European Parliament last summer saw lawmakers reject calls by health and consumer groups for a traffic light system giving a visual warning for high fat, sugar or salt content in a product.

The Parliament vote was largely seen as a victory for the food industry, which had lobbied fiercely against the traffic light system, currently in force in the UK.

A final agreement on the proposal will nevertheless still be far from certain after Monday’s meeting, as there are still major differences between the ministers’ and the Parliament’s positions.

No mandatory front-of-pack labelling

The European Commission had initially proposed a strict mandatory scheme with information provided front-of-pack for five nutrients: energy, salt, sugar, fat and saturated fats. These would have to be shown in amounts of 100g, 100 ml or per portion.

The original text also proposed approving additional national schemes – voluntary or mandatory – that would coexist with EU-level rules.

In its first reading, the European Parliament backed mandatory front-of-pack nutrient labelling but voted in June to delete the entire chapter mentioning national schemes. The House’s rapporteur on the dossier, Renate Sommer MEP (European People’s Party; Germany), argued that “all should be done by a pan-European regulation”.

“We do not want to have additional national labelling schemes,” she said.

The Council, which represents the EU’s 27 member states, is likely to reject the idea that additional national labelling schemes would need pre-approval at EU level, a diplomatic source explained to EurActiv. Instead, it suggests giving food operators the freedom to use their own schemes in addition to the EU-level requirements.

These industry schemes would need to comply with criteria set out in the regulation, such as avoiding labelling that misleads consumers. But they would not need to be pre-approved at EU level.

If endorsed, this system would likely be welcomed as good news by the food industry, which has been rolling out its own voluntary scheme across Europe, based on Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs).

In addition, the Council wants to leave operators free to choose whether they want to put the nutritional information on the front or back of packaging.

The Council’s stance is likely to infuriate consumer groups, which have been calling for mandatory front-of-pack labelling of key nutrients for years. Health and consumer organisations are calling for a traffic light system giving consumers “at-a-glance information” and a visual warning for high fat, sugar or salt content of a product.

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