European Breakthrough on Food Labelling

EU - Food labels should feature mandatory nutritional information and guideline daily amounts, according to draft EU legislation as adopted by MEPs on Wednesday (16 June). However, they rejected a proposal for 'traffic light' values to highlight the salt, sugar and fat content of processed foods.
calendar icon 17 June 2010
clock icon 5 minute read

Following a lively debate, MEPs voted for labelling rules that will enable consumers to make healthy, well-informed choices, while limiting as far as possible the administrative and financial burden on food businesses.

"Overall I am satisfied with the result of today's important vote on clearer food information rules. Personally, I am pleased that MEPs did not support traffic light labelling, but I also feel that we can continue to improve the current proposal to better inform consumers", commented Renate Sommer (EPP-ED, DE), who drafted Parliament's report.

Prominent, Compulsory Nutrition Labelling

MEPs backed the European Commission proposal that quantities of fat, saturates, sugar and salt - as well as energy - must be indicated on the front of food packs. These should be accompanied by guideline daily amounts and expressed with per 100g or per 100ml values. They also voted for details of protein, fibres and transfats to be included elsewhere on the packaging. To ensure the labels are legible, MEPs want a wide range of factors to be taken into account.

A clear majority of MEPs rejected a proposal by the S&D, Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL groups to introduce a traffic light system, which would have required certain processed foods to bear red, amber and green values to indicate high, medium or low levels of salt, sugar and fat. They also opposed such schemes being allowed to run in parallel at national level.

New Country of Origin Requirements

Country of origin labelling is already compulsory for certain foods, such as beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables. MEPs supported extending this to all meat, poultry, dairy products and other single-ingredient products. They also voted for the country of origin to be stated for meat, poultry and fish when used as an ingredient in processed food. However, this may be subject to an impact assessment.

Meat labels should indicate where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered, says Parliament. In addition, meat from slaughter without stunning (according to certain religious traditions) should be labelled as such.

NFU Scotland Chief Executive James Withers said: “Scottish consumers have a growing awareness and interest in where their food comes from but the current labelling laws are confusing and, particularly on processed products, are open to abuse. This vote takes our consumers one step closer to making more accurate and truthful information about the food they buy.

Nutrient Profiles Reinstated

By a single vote, MEPs rejected an Environment Committee recommendation to delete 'nutrient profiles' from existing EU nutrition and health claims legislation. Considered unscientific by its critics, the system is seen by others as essential to assess health claims.

Exemptions for Non-prepacked Food and Alcohol

MEPs want food that is not prepacked, such as meat from a butcher, to be exempt from nutrition labelling rules. Microenterprises making handcrafted food products should also be excluded, they say. A majority of MEPs supported an exemption for alcoholic drinks but they demanded strict labelling for mixed alcoholic drinks or 'alcopops', further suggesting that these should be kept separate from soft drinks where they are sold.

Entry into Force

The final vote in Parliament today was 559 in favour, 54 against and 32 abstentions. However, no quick agreement is expected with Council, so the draft legislation is likely to return to Parliament for a second reading.

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

Mr Withers said: “Europe is now on the brink of bringing in laws that will insist labelling is clear and in no way misleading. Too often country of origin is consigned to the label’s small print or, on processed foods, the act of processing allows food manufacturers to conceal where the primary products have come from. Any new legislation must knock this on the head. While COOL labelling on fresh produce should be a given, people buying processed products also deserve to know the provenance of the main ingredients in their meal.

“Yesterday's vote is a breakthrough and our lobbying efforts, in conjunction with other UK unions will intensify as we head towards the Council of Ministers later this year.”

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