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On your radar > Nutrition labelling

Parliament votes not to make traffic lights mandatory

By Jess Halliday , 17-Mar-2010

The European Parliament has finally voted in rapporteur’s report on the proposed new nutritional labelling regulation, appearing to favour a loose set of general rules. The idea of making traffic light mandatory is out – as is a ban on co-existent national schemes.

Discussions over the shape of new legislation to modernise and simplify information that appears on food packages have been anything but simple. The proposal was published in January 2008, and environment committee rapporter Renate Sommer has tabled some 800 amendments.

While the vast majority of these amendments are minor clarifications, there have been some hot spots that have divided opinion. In particular, some member states have been keen to see colour coding included in the new pan-EU front of pack system.

However the majority of MEPs were not in agreement that colour coding – known as ‘traffic lights’ as red, orange and green are often used – should be mandatory. They said the regulation should lay down only quite general rules on how information should be displayed, which would allow different countries to keep or adopt national rules.

Sommer had proposed that member states should not be able to promote additional national schemes alongside the EU-wide format, but MEPs chose to reject this idea.

More nutrients up front

The proposal from the Commission said that values for five nutrients – energy, fat, saturat4ed fat, carbohydrates, sugar and salt, should be mandatory on the front of food and beverage packs. The MEPs agreed with this, but would like to go even further, including added proteins, fibre and natural and artificial trans fats.

They also said that, given the importance of energy, calorie content should be made prominent.

Per portion or per 100ml/g

Amongst other contentious issues has been the question of whether information should be given per portion or per 100ml/g of product. The food industry has tended to prefer a portion-based approach on the front of packs, as it does not require numeracy skills for consumers to work out exactly how much they would be eating, with the 100ml/g values on the back.

MEPs agree with the Commission, however, that 100g/ml is preferable, with portion info alongside as an optional extra.

Other stickling points dealt with include nano-materials being labelled as nano- in the ingredients list; the replacement of the minimum font size of 3mm for mandatory information with stipulation that it be legible, and clear labelling of “imitated food” to avoid misleading consumers – that is, clearly stating where an ingredient has been replaced.

Where next?

Despite the indication that the matter is now moving forward, shape of the final nutrition labelling legislation is far from a done deal. Parliament will have its first reading in plenary at the end of May, after which the Council will have to adopt its position, and the proposal will return to the Environment committee.

Moreover, it could be years before the information on food packaging actually changes. MEPs said larger companies should have three years to put the new rules into action, but companies with annual turnover or balance sheet under €5m would have five years.

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