EU member states set to lock horns with Brussels over nutrition labeling

The European Union's Council of Member States is on a collision course with the European Commission over a central aspect of a new EU food and beverage labeling regulation.

In December, the Council reached an agreement on the details of the Regulation on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers – a development that surprised some observers.

"This agreement was unexpected because the negotiations between Member States had been evolving rather slowly and the positions expressed on a significant number of issues were controversial," said Miguel Fernandes da Silva, adviser at Brussels-based consultancy EAS.

However, according to Da Silva at least one of the key points agreed by the Council is likely to displease the Commission, namely a contentious decision that mandatory nutrition information – to include levels of energy, fat and saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt – will not have to placed on the front of the pack as previously agreed. Instead these details will simply be required to be placed somewhere on the pack – or "in the same field of vision".

This is at odds with what the Commission wants, said Da Silva. "The Commission has already expressed its disagreement with the member states’ rejection of front of pack mandatory nutrition labeling. The Commission sees front of pack labeling as one of the key, innovative provisions of its proposal and will, undoubtedly, negotiate very hard to keep it in."

He added: "The Council position is also very different from the position of the European Parliament which is requesting that part of the mandatory nutrition declaration – five items – must be provided on front of pack."

In terms of other points agreed by the Council, of particular interest to manufacturers of functional beverage products will be the decision to set a new definition of what constitutes a significant amount of vitamins and minerals in drinks.

As EU rules stand, a product must contain at least 15 percent of the RDA of a nutrient per 100g or 100ml to carry a claim that it is a "source of," or is "high in," that ingredient. However, the Council has decided beverage manufacturers need only include 7.5 percent  of the RDA in 100ml of product – half the current amount prescribed. The 100g definition for other products will remain unchanged.

Da Silva said: "Because the Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation requires that to make the nutrition claim ‘source of vitamins and minerals’ a product must contain at least a significant amount of those substances, any changes to the definition of what a significant amount is becomes very important for manufacturers making claims on their products."

Finalization of the Food Information Regulation is likely to be a drawn out process, said Da Silva. "Procedurally speaking, both the Parliament and the Council will now have subsequent second readings lasting three to four months each. If an agreement on the final text is still not reached after these, it will be necessary to launch a conciliation procedure, which usually lasts a number of more weeks.

"Therefore, a final agreement on the proposed regulation is highly unlikely before the end of 2011."

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