As nutrition labelling comes under scrutiny in the EU, clear battle lines have been drawn between the food industry and consumer NGOs, a report has revealed.
Results of the public consultation document “Labelling: competitiveness, consumer information and better regulation for the EU” initiated last year, show an acute difference of opinion between industry and consumer, health and animal welfare NGO’s, with viewpoints from governments fluctuating between the two.
The consultation was set up by DG SANCO, European Commission, in the hope of finding a coherent approach to harmonising the many rules that affect nutrition labelling in the EU. But the 175 responses show little sign of consensus with most consumer and health NGOs wanting mandatory nutrition labelling while the food industry remains fixed on a voluntary system.
The response comes as no surprise to Brussels-based specialists in European and international food and nutrition policy, the European Advisory Services (EAS). According to the company, which undertook an assessment on the impact of mandatory nutrition labelling for the Commission in November 2004, consensus across the EU is difficult to achieve not least because of the high cost labelling modifications would entail for many companies.
“Both consumer and health NGOs and food industry have strong arguments to defend their positions,” said EAS Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Manager Efi Leontopoulou. “They agree that the label should serve as an accurate information tool for the consumer. Of the 203 companies we sampled in 21 EU Member States, the cost of nutrition labelling in table form was considerably higher than that for linear labelling.”
Many aspects of labelling legislation for the EU have been scheduled for review within the next two years, but arguments to retain voluntary labelling continue to centre on cost, lack of consumer use and understanding, the need for innovation and to remain consumer-driven, and claims that many products already voluntarily provide nutritional information. Those in favour of mandatory labelling insist it will encourage healthy choices, and that consumers have an interest in the nutritional information.
Other difficulties yet to be ironed out include the lack of consensus on which products should be exempt from labelling, such as water, alcoholic beverages and food not sold directly to customers, as well as issues of limited space for labels on small packages. The big four – energy, fats, carbohydrates and protein – featured high on the nutrient priority list, and although it was agreed that Guideline Daily Allowances (GDAs) are potentially beneficial, several respondents clarified that GDAs should complement traditional information rather than replace it.
“It will take serious compromise to reach a consensus between understanding the need for the consumer to be informed, and the impact that mandatory nutrition labelling may have especially on SME’s,” said Leontopoulou. “A good starting point would be to clarify what the average consumer really understands and therefore agree on what basic, essential information should be present on a food label.”
The EAS study, titled “The Introduction of Mandatory Nutrition Labelling in the European Union” is available at the European Commission’s website
For more information contact Estelle Marais, Communications Manager, EAS, 50 Rue de l’Association, 1000 Brussels, tel: +32 2 218 14 70, fax: +32 2 219 73 42, email: [email protected] or visit www.eas.be.