Further European developments on food labelling: European Committee specifies rules regarding the draft Regulation on the provision of food information to consumers

06 May 2011

Jarste Akkermann

In January 2008 the European Commission submitted the draft Regulation on the provision of food information to consumers amending Regulations (EC) No 1924/2006 and (EC) No 1925/2006 and repealing Directives 87/250/EEC, 90/496/EEC, 1999/10/EC, 2000/13/EC, 2002/67/EC, 2008/5/EC and Regulation (EC) No 608/2004. The draft Regulation aims at clarifying food labels in order to provide consumers with better nutritional information to make their choices, being legible and not misleading. The draft legislation has now been discussed and voted at the second hearing by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of the European Parliament (`Environment Committee´) on 19 April 2011 which brought further proposals for amendments. 

Food labels shall include mandatory nutritional information, in particular on trans fats and the country of provenance. The Regulation will change already existing rules on information that is compulsory on all labels, such as name, list of ingredients, “best before” dates, specific conditions of use, and add a requirement to list key nutritional information. There is also an ongoing discussion on requiring an indication of the “date of first freezing” for frozen unprocessed meat, poultry and fish.

Regarding “country of provenance” requirements certain foods like beef, honey, olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables have had to include that information for some time already. The draft Regulation sets out “country of provenance” requirements extended to swine, sheep, goat and poultry meat. During the second hearing of the draft Regulation on 19 April 2011 the Environment Committee has now expressed its intention to go even further, by indicating the “place or country of provenance” for all meat and poultry, milk and dairy products and other single-ingredient products. The Environment Committee has also voted for a requirement to state the country of provenance for meat, poultry and fish when used as an ingredient in processed food.

Another key issue is the general labelling of meat and the clear labelling of “imitated food” in order to avoid misleading information. The intention of the European legislator is to include information on meat labels on where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered. Meat consisting of combined meat parts shall be labelled “formed meat”. The Environment Committee underlined in the second hearing the intention to ensure that consumers are not misled by the presentation of food packaging. It also insisted that foods should not be labelled in a way that could create a misapprehension of being different food, especially if a typical ingredient has been replaced.

Further changes will affect ingredients like aspartame and drinks with high caffeine levels. Food containing aspartame shall be labelled “contains aspartame (a source of phenylalanine; might be unsuitable for pregnant women)”. Certain beverages, with the exception of those based on coffee, tea or coffee or tea extract where the name of the food includes the term "coffee" or "tea", have to bear the warning “High caffeine content. Not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women” and "Do not mix with alcohol" in the same field of vision as the name of the beverage, followed by a reference in brackets and in accordance with Article 13(1) of this Regulation to the caffeine content expressed in mg per 100 ml. Foods other than beverages, where caffeine is added with a nutritional or physiological purpose have to carry the warning “Contains caffeine. Not recommended for children or pregnant women” in the same field of vision as the name of the product, followed by a reference in brackets and in accordance with Article 13(1) of this Regulation to the caffeine content expressed in mg per 100 g/ml. In the case of food supplements, the caffeine content shall be expressed per portion as recommended for daily consumption on the labelling.

A majority of the Environment Committee expressed concerns to include alcoholic drinks to the new provisions. It was brought forward that, in particular, the issue of “alcopops” could not be addressed until they have been defined which is a task that has been assigned to the European Commission.

Micro-enterprises making hand-crafted food products will most probably be excluded from the new rules as well as certain non-prepacked food intended for immediate consumption.

In the second hearing on 19 April 2011 the Environment Committee has approved its proposals with 57 votes in favour, 4 against and 1 abstention. In the next step Ms Renate Sommer, the rapporteur of the draft Regulation, will enter into negotiations with the European Council in order to achieve a second-reading mutual agreement ahead of Parliament´s plenary vote in July 2011. At the moment it is unclear when the Regulation on the provision of food information to consumers will be finally adopted.

The draft Regulation currently provides for a sufficient transition period. Once the Regulation is adopted, food businesses will have three years to adapt to the new provisions. They will have two more years, meaning five years in total, to apply the rules on the nutritional declaration. That should leave food companies enough time to adjust the labelling to the new rules once adopted. It has to be noted that the network of labelling provisions on food will become tighter in the European Union and hence the new requirements will ask for further efforts of the companies to comply with regulatory law. But even though this change in legislation does offer a vast range of possibilities for companies to stand out with creative marketing claims in the future.