Getting closer to new stricter food labeling rules?

11 October 2010

Sara Sparring, Annika Svanberg

On 16 June 2010, the European Parliament voted for common rules on the labelling of food – font size, country-of-origin and nutritional labelling being three of the most important issues brought up in the Parliament.

Draft rules on food labelling, aiming to, inter alia, fight the rising levels of obesity in Europe, were first proposed by the European Commission in 2008. Since then, the proposal has been discussed by the European Council of Ministers as well as the European Parliament. On June 16 2010, the Parliament voted on the proposal for the first time. 

Taking a positive step towards more accessible nutritional information for consumers, the Commission proposed new rules specifying the font size of this information. Many consumers find it difficult to read food labels because of the small letters used. The current requirements on how nutritional information should be displayed do not specify the font size. The Commission’s proposal was to set a minimum font size of at least 3 millimetres. This proposal, however, was rejected by the Parliament which did not seem ready to declare a minimum font size at all. Instead, the Parliament suggested the Commission, together with concerned parties, including consumer organisations, should develop more detailed rules for the readability of the information.

With regards to country-of-origin labelling, this is already a requirement for meat. Today, there are also other requirements on the country-of-origin labelling with respect to, for instance, fruit, vegetables and honey. The Commission proposed that the country-of-origin labelling should continue to be voluntary. Not only did the Parliament back this proposal, but it also voted for an extension of the mandatory labelling to all types of foodstuffs that consist of a single ingredient, such as meat and poultry, fish, dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables. The Parliament also voted for mandatory labelling of meat, poultry and fish products even when these items are used as an ingredient in processed food. This must include indicating where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

The Parliament also backed the proposed requirement for companies to label the calories, sugar, salt and fat content of their foodstuffs on the front of food packages. Moreover, the Parliament voted for added protein, fibre and unsaturated fats also being accounted for on the nutritional label.

When the new labelling regulations will come into force remains to be seen. In order for the new rules to be adopted, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers must reconcile their positions to be consistent with one another. It is now expected that the Council of Ministers is going through the Parliament’s proposed amendments in order to adopt a common position. This will be followed by the Parliament approving, rejecting or even proposing new amendments to the text. It is only when the Council of Ministers approves the Parliament’s amendments that the regulation will be adopted. With the EU governments not due to begin their first-reading position until February 2011, and a second reading likely taking place, the labelling rules are unlikely to be finalised this year or next. The Parliament decided that when the rules are finally agreed upon, companies should be given at least three years to implement these new labeling requirements.