Proposed Legislation on Food Information to Consumers adopted by European Commission

10 August 2011

Jarste Akkermann

On 06 July 2011 the European Commission has adopted a proposal on the provision of food information to consumers. The core of the proposed revision will be that nutrition labelling becomes mandatory. Nutrition labelling on foods is regulated by Directive 90/496/EEC. Currently, under EU legislation, nutrition labelling is optional, although it becomes compulsory when a nutrition or health claim is made in the labelling, presentation or advertising of a foodstuff or when vitamins or minerals are voluntarily added to foods.

The revision will also overhaul Directive 2000/13/EC and its national implementations setting out general labelling requirements for all foodstuffs. Directive 2000/13/EC sets out the compulsory information that has to be included on all labels, such as the name of the product, the list of ingredients, the use-by date and any special conditions of use. In addition to the general legislation, there are certain labelling rules for certain food groups (e.g. meat), and specific measures including labelling provisions for certain foods and substances (e.g. beef, fish, chocolate, dietetic foods, food supplements, fortified foods etc). Overall, the general provisions for food labelling will remain the same under the new Regulation.

The major alterations will be the following:

  • nutrition labelling becomes mandatory;

  • extension of mandatory allergen labelling to non-prepacked food;

  • to ensure legibility mandatory information must be printed in a minimum size (1.2 mm), with a significant contrast between the writing and the background; if the largest surface of the packaging or container is less than 80 cm2  shall at least be 0.9 mm;

  • food containing caffeine must carry warnings relating to pregnant and/or breast feeding women and children;

  • country of origin or place of provenance labelling will become mandatory for meat (fresh, chilled or frozen) not only of beef but also of swine, poultry, sheep and goat;

  • clearer labelling of imitation/substitute foods;

  • all ingredients present in the form of engineered nanomaterials shall be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients; the names of such ingredients shall be followed by the word `nano´ in brackets.

Under the draft Regulation, front-of-pack nutrition information will become mandatory for nearly all pre-packaged processed foods. There will be on the front of the packaging the energy, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates with specific reference to sugars and salt content of the product, expressed in terms of per 100ml/100g or per portion.

In addition, the amount of these elements in relation to the reference intakes will have to be indicated. Operators can choose to include additional nutrition information on the front of pack, on condition that it does not detrimentally affect the visibility and legibility of the mandatory information. As before and, in line with the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation No 1924/2006, nutrition information also has to be provided to support any nutrition or health claim made in relation to a product. Also, in line with the Regulation on the addition of vitamins and minerals and certain other substances to foods, nutrition information has to be provided if vitamins and minerals have been voluntarily added to the food.

In order to avoid the common problem of essential information being too small or hidden for the consumer to easily read on food labels, the draft Regulation states that mandatory information must be printed in a minimum size (1.2 mm), with a significant contrast between the writing and the background. Voluntary information (e.g. slogans or claims) must not be presented in a way that adversely affects the presentation of mandatory information. Exceptions are granted if the surface of the packaging or container is too small.

Currently, the presence of allergens must be clearly indicated on all pre-packed food sold in the EU. However, 70% of anaphylactic shocks occur when people are eating out, and people with allergies need to have the information to protect themselves regardless of whether the food is packaged or not. Therefore, the Commission has proposed the extension of mandatory allergen labelling to non-prepacked food, including food sold in restaurants and other catering establishments, asking for allergens to be displayed or be available at the request of the consumers. There is an EU list of identified allergens which must be labelled, including peanuts, milk, fish and mustard.

The aim of the draft Regulation is to modernise and improve EU food labelling rules, so that consumers have, in a legible and understandable manner, the essential information they need to make informed purchasing choices. In particular, the legal frame is becoming more and more complex for the food industry. Whether the draft Regulation indeed improves EU food labelling will have to be seen when theory is put into practice. It can currently be said that EU food labelling becomes even stricter as more information on food packaging becomes mandatory. The so far adopted draft of the Regulation on food information to consumers at least grants transitional periods between three (for general provisions) and five years (for nutrition labelling). This should leave sufficient time for the food industry to implement the changes accordingly.

The adopted proposal on the provision of food information to consumers shall be published at the end of October 2011 und become effective soon afterwards.