On 6 July 2011, the European Parliament (EP) adopted new rules for food labels in the EU by a large majority of 606 votes to 46 and 26 abstentions. Once endorsed by the Council of the EU and once they enter into force, the new rules on "food information to consumers" will require mandatory nutrition labelling, minimum font size, and mandatory origin labelling for unprocessed meat and other changes that food manufacturer would be required to introduce on food labels within a three to five year period. The vote confirms the recent inter-institutional compromise between the EP, the Council of the EU and the European Commission on the remaining controversial labelling issues.

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Background

The European Commission originally tabled the proposal for a Regulation on the provision of food information to consumers in December 2008. The proposal aims to merge, simplify and amend the provisions of two existing EU Directives that deal with labelling (including presentation and advertising) and nutrition labelling of foods, as well as several other related acts. After lengthy debates and institutional changes such as the European Parliament elections and the subsequent appointment of the European Commission, the EP and the Council of the EU finally reached political agreement on this proposal mid-June 2011 and paved the way for a positive vote in the European Parliament on 6 July 2011.

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Key changes in labelling rules

The major changes in comparison with the current labelling rules concern:

  • Mandatory nutrition table – energy value and amounts of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins and salt must be shown on the label together, in the same field of vision and, where space permits, in a tabular form; they must be expressed per 100 g/ml, indication per portion is voluntary;
  • Voluntary nutrition indication within the principal field of vision – the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, sugars and salt may be repeated in the principal field of vision; in this case they may be expressed per portion or per consumption unit only, with the exception of energy value that would always need to be indicated at least per 100 g/ml;
  • Font size – the minimum font size of a small character ("x-height") in the mandatory particulars will have to be equal to or greater than 1,2 mm; in case of packaging or containers the largest surface of which has an area of less than 80 cm², the minimum "x-height" of the font size shall be equal to or greater than 0,9 mm; the European Commission will establish additional measures regarding legibility;
  • Allergens – allergen ingredients will need to be highlighted in the list of ingredients by means of font or contrast with the background;
  • Mandatory origin labelling for meat – the country of origin will need to be indicated for sheep, goat, poultry and pork meat (fresh, frozen or chilled). Mandatory origin indication already exists for beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables;
  • Alcoholic beverages are exempted from the obligation to indicate nutrition information and ingredients list;
  • The type of animal and vegetable oil used in the product needs to be indicated.  

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Other provisions

The new Regulation also provides:

  • that nutrients such as mono-unsaturates, polyunsaturates, polyols, starch, fibre, vitamins and minerals, may be indicated on a voluntary basis;
  • Clarification as regards food served on board a means of transport: the labelling rules are applicable only where the departure takes place in the territory of a Member State;
  • Definition of an engineered nanomaterial and the obligation to indicate in the list of ingredients with a prefix "nano" those ingredients that are in a form of engineered nanomaterials;
  • Obligation to indicate the date of first freezing;
  • Obligation to indicate whether meat or fish is made of combined pieces by means of a "formed meat / fish" statement;
  • National voluntary schemes, such as the UK "traffic light" system, may continue to be used, provided they do not contravene the provisions of the Regulation.

The new Regulation contains fifteen Annexes with detailed provisions on, among other:

  • Substances or products causing allergies or intolerances;
  • Foods for which the labelling must include one or more additional particulars (such as foods packaged in certain gases; foods containing sweeteners; beverages with high caffeine content; foods with added phytosterols);
  • Foods exempted from requirement of the mandatory nutrition declaration;
  • Designation of certain ingredients;
  • Quantitative ingredient declaration;
  • Net quantity declaration;
  • Date of minimum durability, "use-by" date and date of freezing;
  • Daily reference intakes for vitamins and minerals;
  • Conversion factors for the calculation of energy;
  • Expression and presentation of nutrition declaration.

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Controversial issues put on hold

The EU institutions did not manage to reach a compromise on a number of controversial issues, including on:

  • Country of origin indication for meat other than beef, pork, sheep, goat and poultry, meat used as an ingredient, as well as milk and milk ingredients, unprocessed foods, single ingredient products and ingredients that represent more than 50% of a product;
  • Labelling of transfats;
  • Information to be provided on alcoholic beverages.

In respect of the above issues, the European Commission is requested to present within a certain period of time, a report or feasibility study, and where appropriate, a legislative proposal, in order to enable the adoption of additional measures.

In addition, in the context of the future EU strategy for the protection and welfare of animals, the European Commission should consider a study on the opportunity to provide consumers with the relevant information on the stunning of animals. The European Commission shall also prepare a report regarding alternative forms of expression and presentation of nutrition information.

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Next steps

The adoption of the act by the European Parliament still needs to be endorsed by the Council of the EU. This is expected to happen as early as the beginning of October 2011. The translation work on the act has started. At this stage it is, therefore, expected that the new Regulation on the provision of food information to consumers may be published in the Official Journal by the end of October 2011. It would enter into force 20 days after publication.

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Business impact

The new EU food labelling rules trigger the need for food business operators marketing food and food products in the EU to subject their products to a serious label review to ensure compliance with the new rules. Industry will have a three year transition period to adapt to the new rules and an additional two years to comply with the provisions on mandatory nutrition declaration. In the meantime, food products placed on the market in accordance with the current rules may validly be sold until the stocks are exhausted. Early review for compliance with the new rules will assist companies in their ability to anticipate future changes, redesign labels and introduce any required changes in as smooth a manner as possible.