The European Commission will vote on legislation to introduce mandatory regulations for food and drink labelling across Europe, putting an end to the current inconsistency.
EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou unveiled plans for stricter but simpler labelling procedures in Brussels today, in a bid to combat the growing problem of obesity across Europe.
Over 300m adults are obese worldwide, representing a three-fold increase since the 1980s, according to latest statistics from the WHO and the International Obesity Task Force. In 2006, 30 per cent of European children were estimated to be overweight.
The proposed legislation pushes for manufacturers to display nutritional information on the front of the pack.
Products would be required to show energy, fat, saturated fat and 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 would have to be indicated.
A Commission statement said: "The Commission decided to make nutrition labelling mandatory on the front of pack because this was seen to provide consumers with the most readily accessible information and have the greatest potential impact on consumer decisions."
The draft regulation states that mandatory information must be printed in a minimum size of 3mm, with a significant contrast between the writing and the background. Voluntary information must not be presented in a way that adversely affects the presentation of the mandatory information.
The country of origin should be determined in accordance with the Community Custom Code. The origin or place of provenance of the main ingredients must also be listed if those ingredients originate from a different place than the finished product.
The proposal clarifies the current situation concerning the listing of ingredients of alcoholic beverages, ensuring ready to drink mixed alcoholic beverages include an ingredients list.
Unprocessed foods and those not nutritionally significant in the diet overall will be exempt from the labeling requirements, as will food sold in packaging with a surface area less that 25cm².
Current inconsistent labelling
A previous European Directive laid out requirements for labels to include information such as use-by-date and ingredients. However, nutrition labelling has remained optional, unless the product makes a nutritional claim.
As a result, labelling across Europe is currently sporadic and inconsistent, with many countries adopting their own regulations, causing concern that this leads consumers to be confused.
The best approach to labelling nutritional information has sparked lively debate. Detailed labels include the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA), introduced by the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), which shows the amount in grams and percentages of calories, sugar, fat, saturates and salt per serving.
There is also the Multiple Traffic Light label, recommended by the UK Food Standards Agency, and the Wheel of Health.
Examples of simple symbols are Sweden's Green Keyhole, Canada's Shop Smart with Heart, Australia's Pick the Tick, and PepsiCo's Smart Spot.
A Unilever study released earlier this month suggested simpler labels were more efficient in informing consumers, unlike the more detailed approach presented to the Commission today.
Last week, the UK government unveiled the first steps it will take in its national strategy to fight obesity, calling for a "single, simple and effective" food labelling system.
In 2006, the CIAA implemented a voluntary nutrition labelling scheme for the food and drink industry across Europe based on GDAs.
It requires only the energy content to appear on the front of a pack, with salt, sugars, fat, saturates and salt having to appear on the front or back.
Although voluntary, it says 1,030 brands will be using the GDA labelling by the end of 2008, including industry giants such as Nestle, Kellogg, Mars, PepsiCo and Unilever.
A spokesperson for CIAA claimed the timing is unfortunate: "The implementation of the CIAA Nutrition Labelling Scheme is making rapid progress with an increasing number of companies adopting GDAs.
"We understand that the European Commission does not have sufficient data to back one particular scheme… We fear that this approach will substantially weaken the single market and consequently the competitiveness of the food and drink industry."
The CIAA is concerned of the Commission's suggestions to make information regarding all the elements obligatory for the front of pack, saying "consumer research shows that consumers want simple, at-a-glance information", and that some companies have even chosen to list all five on the front-of-pack label.
It has also expressed reservations about the regulations regarding font size, saying that suggested is not workable, as is making the country of origin a mandatory feature.