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30/01/2008

Commission presents proposal on food labelling

Brussels, 30 January. The European Commission has adopted a proposal on the provision of food information to consumers. The proposal aims at modernising EU food labelling rules and making food labels clearer and more relevant to the needs of EU consumers. Under the Draft Regulation proposal, foodstuffs are required to list the ingredients and to display key nutritional information on the front of the package (including energy value, the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrates with specific references to sugars and salt). General requirements on how nutrition information should be displayed on food labels are also set out, although there is room for Member States to promote additional national schemes provided they do not undermine the EU rules. The draft Regulation extends the current requirements for allergen labelling to cover non pre-packed food.

Although the aim of the proposal is purportedly to “achieve a high level of health protection for consumers and to guarantee their right to information”, the Commission has regrettably decided to exempt alcoholic beverages from the obligation to list the ingredients (see art. 20) and to provide for a nutrition declaration (see art. 29.1), despite their potential for harm to health. The reasons for this exemption are contained in Recital 28 which states that “Specific Community rules already exist on the labelling of wine. Council Regulation (EC) No 1493/1999 of 17 May 1999 on the common organisation of the market in wine provides an exhaustive set of technical standards which fully cover all oenological practices, manufacturing methods and means of presentation and labelling of wines, thus ensuring that all stages in the chain are covered and that consumers are protected and properly informed. In particular, this legislation describes in a precise and exhaustive manner the substances likely to be used in the production process, together with the conditions for their use via a positive list of oenological practices and treatments; any practice not included in this list is prohibited”. “As regards beer and spirits as defined in Article 2(1) of Regulation (EC) No. […] of […] of the European Parliament and of the Council on the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No 1576/89, and in order to ensure a consistent approach and coherence with the conditions established for wine, the same kind of exemptions shall apply.[1]

Mixed alcoholic beverages (alcopops) will not, however, be entirely exempt and their ingredients and nutrient content will have to be stated on the front of the bottle.

Allergens: Given the severe health risks that allergens can pose, the draft Regulation proposes that all food containing allergenic substances (such as peanuts, milk, mustard or fish) must be labelled or the presence of the allergen must be clearly indicated in another way. This is one step further than the current allergen labelling requirement, which only covers pre-packed food at the Community level. Under the new rules, unpackaged food and food served by restaurants or catering establishments will also have to indicate the presence of allergens, to better protect those who are susceptible to reacting to such products. The Commission has however exempted from this requirement the allergens that can be found in alcoholic beverages: fish gelatine or Isinglass used as fining agent in beer and wine are exempted from the labeling requirement and so they are whey, cereals and nuts used for making distillates or ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin for spirit drinks and other beverages containing more than 1,2 % by volume of alcohol.

As regards the alcoholic strength, the proposal establishes that the actual alcoholic strength by volume of beverages containing more than 1,2 % by volume of alcohol shall be indicated by a figure to not more than one decimal place. It shall be followed by the symbol ‘% vol.' and may be preceded by the word ‘alcohol' or the abbreviation ‘alc'.

The alcoholic strength shall be determined at 20°C. Positive and negative allowed tolerances in respect of the indication of the alcoholic strength by volume and expressed in absolute values shall be as listed in the following table. They shall apply without prejudice to the tolerances deriving from the method of analysis used for determining the alcoholic strength.

The exemption of alcoholic beverages from the labelling requirements has earned Commissioner Kyprianou some criticism for having caved into demands from the alcohol industry and several national EU governments.

During the press conference, Commissioner Kyprianou admitted that the labelling requirements imposed to wine were insufficient to protect consumers but that more work needed to be done to determine what kind of information needs to be provided to consumers and study whether the regulation of alcohol labelling should be done by means of this regulation or by another specific instrument. According to the text of the proposal “the Commission will produce a report after 5 years of the entry into force of this Regulation and may propose, if necessary specific requirements in the context of this regulation”. (A transcription of Mr Kyprianou's answers on the exclusion of alcoholic beverages can be found at the end of this article).

Kyprianou's plans must now win support from the European Parliament and the EU's 27 health ministers before they can come into force.

In its press release, Eurocare welcomed the fact that the Commission was taking into account consumers' needs for information regarding alcopops. However, Mariann Skar, Secretary General of Eurocare, regretted the decision not to include all alcoholic beverages “this, in our view, is a missed opportunity to adopt a comprehensive approach to labelling and will not benefit the European consumers. Furthermore, this is not in line with the Commission's obligation to seek to improve the coherence between policies that have an impact on alcohol related harm stated in the EU Alcohol Strategy
The EU Alcohol Strategy launched in October 2006 also stated that “Citizens have the right to obtain relevant information on the health impact, and in particular on the risks and consequences related to harmful and hazardous consumption of alcohol, and to obtain more detailed information on added ingredients that may be harmful to the health of certain groups of consumers”.

Proposal from the Commission for a regulation on the provision of food information to consumers
http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=COM:2008:0040:FIN:EN:PDF

Commission's press release

http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/08/112&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en

To access the Commission's Q&A on food labelling

http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/08/64&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en

Related press articles

New York Times (EU) - EU Proposes New Simpler Food Labels

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/world/AP-EU-Food-Labels.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=food+labeling&st=nyt&oref=slogin

Reuters - EU health chief angers industry over labelling rules

http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/01/30/eu-food-labelling-idUSL2812552520080130

Euractiv - Industry bashes Commission proposals on food labelling

http://www.euractiv.com/en/health/industry-bashes-commission-proposals-food-labelling/article-169973

Transcription of the press conference Commissioner Kyprianou gave after the release of the proposal.

Exclusion of alcoholic beverages from the proposal:

Mr Kyprianou: We should not underestimate the fact that the proposal the acknowledgement is made that consumers need to be provided with information also about alcohol beverages, this is important because it demonstrates that when it comes to consumer protection and information there are no privileged products. So from my point of view the principle is set here. At the same time there are no specific provisions, at this stage, regarding the information to be provided regarding alcoholic beverages. For 2 reasons: we acknowledge / recognize the specificities of these products so we need to work a little bit more on defining what kind of information needs to be provided to consumers and secondly for reasons of better regulation, because for the wine there is already an extensive regulation which also covers labelling so we need to examine whether in our philosophy of better regulation any additional information regarding wine should be provided for in that regulation or in the general one, the same applies to beer and spirits, we need to see whether it will be more useful to have there vertical legislation or have them covered in this more general one. So we need more work on the substance, see what information and how should be provided, but also in the better regulation aspect, through which instrument this should be done, the decision was taken to come back within 5 years with a report based on what I just described and if necessary with proposals on specific measures to be taken to provide more information to consumers. There is nevertheless an exemption, and that concerns the mixed beverages, alcopops, which are covered by this proposal. Firstly, because of their specific nature and secondly, because they are mostly consumed by young people which are our main concern. Besides it wouldn't be very logic to exempt alcopops from the labelling requirements applicable to fruit juices because some alcohol has been added. There is no justification why this should be treated differently than the other products

Journalist from Reuters: Can you describe a little bit more how you came to the decision that more work needed to be done on the alcohol side when in fact if I am let to believe your services said in the first place that alcohol should be included and how angry disappointed or frustrated with other members of your college and indeed some Member States that every time you attempt to bring in measures against the alcohol industry you are rebuffed?

Mr Kyprianou: There were several drafts, some included alcoholic beverages, some excluded them completely. The fact is that our basic aim was to have the possibility of examining the situation regarding wine and other alcoholic beverages. As I mentioned wine is already regulated by specific legislation that I believe needs to be improved when it comes to consumer protection, we still need to examine whether this can be done through this proposal or through that specific legislation. It seems that from the better regulation point of view this would be better done in a specific legislation, but that would mean an unfair treatment of the other two categories. Also even though we know information to consumer should be provided also in relation to alcoholic beverages more work needs to be done on what kind of information needs to be provided to consumers. So what we were aiming at was at having the enabling clause, which in practice is included in the proposal. For me is the principle that counts that we accept this is another category of food product that has to be labelled with information to consumers, then we will come back with the technicalities. I know this category of products is very sensitive, everywhere in the EU and it is true that it attracts a lot of interest every time there is a proposal that touches upon these products. Some times it is because some they fear the worst instead of looking at what we really want to do and they panic. The reality is that I have the support of my colleagues, as you know we adopted the EU Alcohol Strategy in October 2006, and now we have all accepted that in principle all these products should also be covered when it comes to information to consumers and we will come back to this in a few years. So maybe it takes more explaining to do in this area but eventually the outcome is positive.

Journalist from the BBC: the core of your proposal seems to be health protection and promotion but is hard to think of a product across the EU that causes more damage to health than alcoholic drinks so surely alcohol has to be included if you are trying to protect consumer health.

Mr Kyprianou: alcohol is not excluded, we just need more time to come with specific proposals in this area. Secondly, we have to be practical in this respect, the problems created by the excessive consumption of alcohol will not be solved solely through the labelling legislation is also through other measures dealing with overconsumption. SO our approach regarding alcohol is that it is another consumed product, so the same information should be provided to consumers, but when it comes to the problems that you mentioned then is through other measures that are covered in the alcohol strategy that we should tackle this issue.

Journalist from the Financial Times: by including at this stage alcopops but excluding other alcoholic drinks aren't you putting alcopops as fruit juice therefore you are turning them into soft drinks rather than making a clear distinction that they are alcoholic.

Mr Kyprianou: that was one of our concerns but the fact is that we seem them as a category of their own and there was no justification to postpone legislation on this because we already know how we want to deal with these products, so this is a forth category of alcoholic beverages and its legislation does not need to be postponed for later, but still fall under the alcoholic beverages category