The hearing, organised by rapporteur Dr Renate Sommer MEP, took place in Brussels last week and represented an opportunity for food industry and consumer groups to present their views on the proposed food information regulation, published at the beginning of this year.
The different sides of the industry generally agreed that the proposal does not fulfil its stated aim of making food labelling simpler – but actually makes it rather more complicated.
The CIAA, which represents European food manufacturers, said that simpler and harmonised labelling for the EU would aid consumers, companies, and enforcers.
“The opportunity to improve labels should not be missed,” said Angelika Mrohs, chair of the CIAA Consumer Information Expert Group – but added that the cost implications should be properly assessed.
Meanwhile, Ludger Fischer of the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EACSME) said the proposal would increase costs – and since 90 per cent of European manufacturers are SMEs that will find this particularly hard to bear.
He referred to an Austrian Chamber of Commerce study, which concluded that new nutrition information labelling would cost around €6bn.
Taking the opposite view to industry, Kees de Winter, representing the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), said that the proposal will make labels simpler for consumers – and spoke out especially in favour of ‘traffic light’ labelling. Traffic lights using red, orange and green colours to signal foods with high or low levels of undesirable nutrients like salt and saturated fat at a glance.
Dr Sommer’s view on traffic lights was not favourable, though; that they would serve to confuse consumers more.
“It would for example mean that actually healthy dark bread will be marked as bad due to its content of salt, while the rather unhealthy white bread would get a green point. But this type of labelling cannot be in the interest of consumers,” she said.
The traffic light scheme has proved particularly favoured in the UK; however the shadow Tory government recently indicated that, if it comes to power at the next general election, it would drop the scheme.
Following the hearing, Dr Sommer said the discussion had “confirmed [her] opinion… that excessive information on food packaging serves neither the consumer nor the foodstuffs industry.”
She said it is “absolutely essential” that a better system for labelling be devised, but believe that the information on packaging should be limited to the really substantial.
More discussion is needed on a number of points, including the controversial requirement for mandatory information to have a minimum font size of 3mm. This would mean that packaging sizes would need to be larger and would pose particular problems for multilingual labels – a point stressed by EuroCommerce.
The labelling proposal in its current form allows for the co-existence of national nutrient labelling schemes alongside a Europe-wide scheme. The CIAA is against this flexibility, as it would fly against harmonisation.
Dr Sommer will now put together a report on the hearing, which will be voted on by the Environment Committee. This is expected to take place in late autumn and a first reading to follow in spring 2009, within the legislative period of the Parliament.
A spokesperson for Dr Sommer said that it is “quite possible” a second reading will be required. Legislation related to the environment and consumer protection always requires co-decision between the Parliament and the Council – and this usually means a compromise needs to be struck.
Roseline Lecourt, a spokesperson for the French presidency of the EU, said a clearer indication of the Council’s position on food labelling will be given before the Health and Consumers Affairs Council takes place on 15 and 16 December.