Owen Warnock, partner and food law expert at international law firm Eversheds, unpicks the new EU labelling proposal and assesses what it may mean for food manufacturers.
The European Commission announced on 30 January that it had finalised its proposals for modernising and reforming EU labelling requirements for food and drink. Whilst much of the text merely consolidates existing provisions, there are a number of significant proposed new rules.
The first significant change is that a single 'regulation' will replaces a series of 'directives'. This should reduce the amount of variation from one member state to another which results from the fact that each member state adopts its own laws to implement a directive.
Once the new law is finalised, it will come in to force on a single date across the whole of the EU. It should be easier for food businesses to understand what rules apply to them.
The most controversial proposal is the introduction of front-of-pack labelling of key nutrients. The proposal adopts the 'guideline daily amounts' (GDA) approach rather than traffic lights approach favoured by the UK's Food Standards Agency.
Fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, salt and energy content would need to be given per 100g or 100ml and also by reference to GDAs. There would be an option to provide in addition per portion information. The rules would also permit quantities to be given for a long list of further nutrients including, for the first time, trans fats.
The proposal to use GDAs will be popular with most of the food industry, however the European Consumers' Organisation, BEUC, is lobbying hard for traffic lights.
In a startling proposal, the draft legislation would give each Member State the option to devise or approve its own alternative front-of-pack nutrition labelling schemes. Whilst manufacturers or retailers could always use the EU's main nutrition labelling system, these other schemes would offer food businesses an alterative way of discharging the obligation to provide front-of-pack labelling.
The food industry has expressed deep concern because of the potential anti-competitive effect. Whilst the proposal apparently contemplates the European institutions having some degree of control over labelling systems introduced by particular Member States, the potential indirect barriers to trade are all too obvious in a case where a particular alternative scheme finds favour in a particular country or with a certain major retailer.
Plugging the gap on allergens
Under the proposal, for the first time a minimum print size would be specified for food labels: 3mm in height. Furthermore, food that is not prepacked, or that is sold in restaurants and catering establishments, would also need to be accompanied by a declaration of any allergenic ingredient - thus plugging a gap in the current rules on allergens which only apply to the labelling of pre packed food.
Precision on provenance
A further significant proposal involves much more precision in the rules forbidding misleading indications of the origin or provenance of a food - including the situation where a principal ingredient of a food comes from a different country than the country of manufacture.
Not all the details of this proposal have yet been finalised, but it will be an important one for many food businesses.
For some it will help to protect them from unfair competition from products which are less clearly 'from' a particular place than one might expect, for others these rules may have an impact on the location chosen for factories and the suppliers use to provide key ingredients.
A long debate ahead
At the moment the Commission has merely published a preliminary draft text. This is only the first stage in what will no doubt be a long debate about the future of European food labelling requirements.