“There are no valid grounds for the challenge, and I am extremely disappointed that the Commission has pursued this case,” the leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party said in her letter to the commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs Elżbieta Bieńkowska and commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis.
“Obesity is a problem across the whole of Europe, and rather than trying to stop this simple, consumer-friendly and effective labelling system we should be seriously looking at making it mandatory for all processed foods on the single market,” she said.
At the beginning of October the Commission formally opened infraction proceedings against the UK’s voluntary nutrition labelling system, a decision Willmott called “foolish”. The UK now has until December to defend itself against claims that the scheme creates a boundary to trade, and fails to offer clear and scientifically sound nutritional guidance to consumers.
In the letter she said that statements that the scheme was a barrier to trade must be supported by reliable figures, and added that fears that single ingredient foods like olive oil would be targeted were “completely unfounded” since the voluntary label – which ranks sugars, fat, saturated fat and salt by the colours red, yellow or green depending on content based on harmonised references – was used on multi-ingredient food and drinks only.
The Commission said it was concerned that the scheme’s “negative” red classification may discriminate against foods like traditional Italian cheeses, which would be likely labelled red for salt and fat content while Italian trade groups pointed out that products like Diet Coke would be given the green light for all three nutrient counts.
Willmott said the scheme was not designed to discriminate against certain products, but simply provide objective information about nutritional content.
Freedom of expression
She said that during the negotiation of the EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation it was made clear that countries could introduce voluntary labelling schemes, or “additional forms of expression”, providing certain points were adhered to, which she said the UK had done.
The label was an effective and simple way to communicate nutritional information to consumers at a time when obesity was a growing concern, she said, and what’s more it was based on sound research and consultation with a range of stakeholders. The UK’s Department of Health received 191 full responses from NGOs, retailers and local government authorities when it launched its consultation, and the scheme was supported by consumer groups like Which? and the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).
Based on what?
Meanwhile she said the scheme was based on sturdy research conducted by the UK’s Food Standards Agency which concluded that although levels of comprehension were generally high for all front of pack (FOP) labels, the coexistence of a range of formats in the marketplace caused difficulties for shoppers.
“This suggests that standardising to just one label format would enhance use and comprehension of FOP labels. Overall the balance of evidence from the research shows that the strongest FOP labels are those which combine text (high, medium, low), traffic light colours and %GDA information,” FSA said.
Reacting to the publication of the letter, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) backed Willmott, pointing to a US study that showed the label could positively influence consumer food choice.
“EPHA calls upon the European institutions not to ignore the findings of the new studies and to give due consideration to the public interest of protecting people’s and society’s health and well-being,” it said in a statement.