However harmonisation could also make it easier for businesses to sell goods across the bloc, which varies widely in some areas such as nutrition labelling.
The EU's Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection (SANCO) noted that member states have tended to favour regulation on harmonising labelling provisions in the bloc. General food labelling in the bloc is governed by Directive 2000/13/EC, a codified version of Directive 79/112/EC. Most of the provisions date back to 1978. The latest amendment introduced in 2003 deals with the labelling of allergenic ingredients.
"The evolution of both the foodstuffs market and consumers' expectations as to the information given on these foodstuffs renders the update of this legislation necessary," stated SANCO.
Specific provisions, because of specific needs to informing consumers, are included in other legislation, as a result of the different composition or quality standards for foods.
"In considering the strategic goal for labelling, it is recognised that there will be differences in areas such as nutrition, animal welfare, country of origin, ingredients, GMOs and product safety," the firm stated. "However, equally there are many common themes and it is envisaged that the Sanco approach will seek, as far as possible, to deal with each of these in a consistent way."
Some common themes include considering alternatives to legislation such as self-regulation or codes of best practice for industry. DG Sanco will also consider how to deal with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The costs of introducing labelling changes will generally be higher for SMEs and ways of minimising these costs need to be considered, the firm stated.
Legislators will also have to consider how to ensuring the suitable presentation of labels, an issue consumers are often dissatisfied with. Consumers generally find labels difficult to read and thus to understand. This holds particularly true for the labelling of food products.
Sanco will also consider the potential use of logos or symbols for a more consistent food labelling policy.
"Whilst attractive in relation to the internal market, minimising the space needed for multi-lingual labelling and ensuring a common understanding across Europe, there may be practical difficulties in development and implementation," the Sanco stated.
The division will attempt to suggest ways of achieving the balance between a prescriptive approach to labelling, which ensures consistency but can be rigid and prevent innovation, and one which is too flexible and leads to a loss of the internal market, according to the consultation document.
It will also consider co-ordinating the implementation of legislation to minimise the effect of multiple labelling changes on sectors of the industry.
Nutrition labelling is also under review. This area is currently regulated by Directive 90/496/EEC, making such labelling optional unless a nutrition claim is made by the manufacturer on the package or in the advertising of a foodstuff.
The directive also lays down a standardised format in which nutrition labelling must be presented. However nutrition labelling varies between member states, with many companies voluntarily providing this information.
DG Sanco says estimates suggest a range of between 30 per cent and 85 per cent of pre-packaged foods have voluntary nutritional labelling on them.
"Although research indicates that most consumers are keen to have such labelling, particularly on processed products, there is evidence that the majority of consumers do not actually make use of the nutrition label," the document states. "Consequently there is a general consensus that the current system of nutrition labelling is not working and that it needs changing, however there is no agreement on the best way forward."
DG Sanco's consultation will examine whether nutrition labelling should be made mandatory.
"Some consider this to be essential in order to increase consumer use of such labels, although some consider that the latest research shows that this labelling is very little used," Sanco stated. "If it is felt that manadatory labelling is useful, its introduction could adversely affect some businesses, especially smaller ones, who would find it hard to bear the costs."
However, ways of minimising these, such as longer implementation dates, derogations for short production runs or low turnover businesses, providing tools or guidance to help implementation, could be considered.
The firm noted that member states and industry are already considering options that might help the consumer to put the information on the label in context of their overall diet, with numerous systems being considered or in use.
Just last week the UK's food regulator approved a voluntary colour-coded nutritional labelling scheme for products over manufacturer's objections.
The "signpost" scheme as the UK's food regulator calls it, would use green, amber and red to signal whether foods contain low, medium or high amounts of fat, saturates, sugar and salt.
"Whilst potentially of benefit, a proliferation of different approaches could cause consumer confusion and affect the internal market," Sanco stated.
The deadline for comments is 16 June 2006.