EU Commission could take UK and its ‘traffic light’ labels to courts of justice

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

UK ‘traffic light’ labels could be taken to EU courts of justice

Related tags European union

The European Commission is investigating whether the UK’s ‘traffic light’ front of pack labelling is compatible with EU law, something which could result in an infringement procedure, it says.

A spokesperson for Italian Commissioner Antonio Tajani said he had received several complaints from European companies expressing concerns as to the impact of the nutrition labelling system in the UK, whereby they claimed that “adoption of a hybrid labelling scheme combining reference intakes and a traffic light colour coding in UK would fragment the issue of nutrition labelling in the EU”.​  

The spokesperson said the Commission could currently only confirm that it was in the process of “examining the compatibility of the concerned measures with provisions of EU law”.

But added: “Should the assessment of the reply conclude on the infringement of provisions of EU law, the Commission may decide to start an infringement procedure.”​ 

They said a decision would be announced in the next few weeks along with other possible member state infringements.  

Possible consequences


The Commission said that there would be several steps in such a process, the final being the referral to the European courts of justice with “possible fines to be applied”​.

The so called ‘traffic light’ scheme is a voluntary front-of-pack labelling system introduced in the UK by the country’s Food Standards Agency (FSA). The scheme ranks four nutrition elements – sugars, fat, saturated fatty acids and salt – by assigning a colour – red, green or amber – depending on content levels.

Proponents of the scheme say it provides a simple guide to making good nutrition choices, while critics say it is both over simplistic and could detract from attempts to harmonise food law in the Europe Union.

Legal proceedings

Member states are responsible for implementing EU law within its own legal system, but it falls to the Commission to ensure that this is correctly applied. In cases where a member state fails to comply with EU law, the Commission has the power to try to bring the infringement to an end and where necessary refer the case to the European court of justice. It can take “whatever action it deems appropriate in response to either a complaint or indications of infringements which it detects itself”.

Under the non-compliance procedure, the Commission first gives the member state the opportunity to conform voluntarily. A letter of formal notice marks the first stage in the pre-litigation procedure, at which point the Commission asks the state to submit its take on the problem with respect to EU law. The Commission spokesperson told us that a formal letter had not yet been issued. 

Referral by the Commission to the court of justice opens the litigation procedure, which the Commission has a discretionary power in deciding.  

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Posted by Claire wilson,

The Foods Standards Agency is the FSA not the ASA

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Traffic lights are NOT legally binding

Posted by Professor Owen Warnock,

In fact the traffic light system, althogh promoted by the UK government is not legally binding. It is true that there is some market pressure from retailers for manufacturers to apply traffic lights. What is puzzling is that it was exactly this kind of system that the new EU Food Information Regulation envisaged could be developed as "additional forms of expression and presentation" under Article 35. I strongly suspect that the objections come from producers of some traditional products who do not like the fact that the traffic lights do in fact communicate effectively to consumers the high fat, salt or sugar content of some of those products.

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traffic lights are ignored by consumers

Posted by dieter E,

The UK-approach is legally binding food companies; this is the EU-issue. In Germany we had the case that a producer of deep-frozen meals applied a traffic light labelling. It was expected, that this voluntary and additional information would be appreciated by the consumers. Studies revieled the opposite, this extra effort was ignored. And this company gave-up with traffic lights for the reason, it was of no advantage and revenue on the market place. Consequently, the basic question is, why to implement in UK any compulsory labelling which is ignored by the addressee, the consumer?

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