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25/08/2017

Can we trust the alcohol industry to label itself?

Earlier this week report from the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) found that alcohol producers in the UK are failing to communicate drinking guidelines. Can the industry deliver then at the European level? They have 6 months left to propose industry wide alcohol labelling arrangement to the European Commission.

In the UK the drinking guidelines were changed in January 2016 to reflect evidence linking alcohol to diseases such as cancer and heart disease, with the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, warning that there was no safe level of drinking for either sex.

The AHA research looked at the information included on alcohol product labels. It was carried out in May this year, some 15 months after the updated guidelines were launched. Researchers found that, of the 315 product labels reviewed across 27 locations in the UK, only one informed the public of the up-to-date low-risk weekly drinking guideline of 14 units a week.

Releasing their research, the AHA said that tougher rules were needed on alcohol labelling, to make sure alcohol producers inform the public of the health harms linked with their products.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the AHA, said:

“Self-regulation has failed. Instead of alcohol producers deciding what to include on labels, the government should now require all labels to contain the latest guidelines and information on the health conditions linked with alcohol’’

In March 2017, the European Commission (Commission) published a long overdue report on alcohol labelling required by Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011. Back in 2011 Regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers exempted alcoholic beverages (containing more than 1,2% by volume) from the obligation to provide information to consumers. Unlike other food products, they do not have to list their ingredients or provide nutritional information.

The European Commissions’ report clearly states that objective grounds have not been identified that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutritional information on alcoholic beverages or a differentiated treatment for some alcoholic beverages, such as ‘alcopops’. The report’s conclusions appear to be driven by a political decision. In its report, the Commission notes that alcohol sector is increasingly prepared to provide responses and therefore it is giving the alcohol producers a year to deliver a self-regulatory proposal that would cover the entire sector of alcoholic beverages. The Commission will assess the industry’s proposal and if it is unsatisfactory, it will launch Impact Assessment.

In the last weeks, as a response to MEP Biljana Borzan written question, European Commission has indicated how it will assess whether the alcohol industry proposal is satisfactory. It reads:

The Commission considers that this approach should cover all types of alcoholic beverages in order to avoid any misunderstanding or confusion from the consumers and to allow comparisons between the different types of alcoholic beverages.

The sector has one year to make such a proposal and once submitted, the Commission will consider all its aspects and assess to which extent the proposal pursues the general objectives set out above. The Commission will also assess the compatibility of the proposal with EU law.

In accordance with its commitments towards Better Regulation, the Commission is prepared to discuss such a proposal with all interested parties, including consumer representatives, in the framework of the Advisory Group on the Food Chain and Animal and Plant Health2.

By giving alcohol producers a year to develop an industry wide approach in accordance with Reg 1169/2011, the European Commission gave them an almost unprecedented opportunity to avoid regulation. In an election-filled year with a fragile status quo, clearly this has been a political choice. It remains to be seen whether alcohol producers will seize this opportunity or continue to hope that in the XXI century consumer demand for information, openness and transparency will not touch their sector and people will continue to be satisfied with an answer - wine is wine.