MEPs raise concerns (again) in relation to traffic light labels

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

The UK's front-of-pack labelling system has been the subject of an ongoing battle between it and other European countries, notably Italy.©iStock/Goldstock
The UK's front-of-pack labelling system has been the subject of an ongoing battle between it and other European countries, notably Italy.©iStock/Goldstock
Around 100 members of the European Parliament MEPs have requested that the European Commission investigate the commercial impact of the UK’s front-of-pack traffic light labelling scheme.

The hybrid label – a combination of nutritional information and colour coding – was introduced in 2013 after a decade of debate. Red, amber and green are used to signify whether a product is high, medium or low respectively in terms of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content.

Use of the label is voluntary, but it is the approach recommended by the UK’s Department of Health. However, certain parts of Europe have had issue with the scheme since its inception.

The Italian agriculture minister Maurizio Martina said in March​ that it “is not a tool to protect consumers’ health”.​ Representatives from six other member states also backed Italy’s assertion that the scheme violates Article 35 of Regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers (FIC)

In their written question, tabled last month, the group of MEPs cited a study showing sales of Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano and French Brie without the traffic light labels have increased. However, sales of those with amber or red lights have declined between 8% and 14%.

“These results confirm the influence that the system is able to have on consumers, leading them not to buy products, without providing correct and transparent information on the label,”​ the MEPs noted.

“Given this situation, does the Commission consider it necessary to further explore the findings emerging from the abovementioned study by conducting a global economic and commercial assessment of the impact generated by the use of traffic-light labelling by UK retailers?”

Commission reaction

The Commission opened infraction proceedings against the UK​ all the way back in October 2014, following complaints from member states about colour-coded labels. The issue could soon come to a head thanks to new labelling regulations.

By 13 December this year, companies will have to comply with nutrition labelling requirements by providing a nutritional declaration on all food labels that includes the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt.

Additional labelling, for example traffic lights, is permitted, but it must be objective and non-discriminatory. The labels must also be based on sound scientific research and must not create obstacles to the free movement of goods.

In a statement sent to FoodNavigator this week, the Commission noted that it would be submitting a report to the European Parliament and the Council by 13 December 2017 on the impact traffic light labels have on the internal market and “on the advisability of further harmonisation”.​ This is in accordance with new labelling laws under FIR.

The UK will also have to submit information on its scheme as part of FIC. The country has in the past maintained that its system is compliant with EU law, though the Department of Health did not respond to requests this week for a statement.

Brexit break

That the UK has voted to leave the EU won’t affect procedures, a spokeswoman for the Commission confirmed. “EU law continues to apply to the full to the UK and in the UK until it is no longer a member. For the time being, nothing changes.”

However, the UK is clearing looking ahead to life outside the bloc. In its recently published childhood obesity strategy the government made clearer labelling a priority.

“The UK’s decision to leave the European Union will give us greater flexibility to determine what information should be presented on packaged food, and how it should be displayed,” ​the strategy reads.

“We want to [] review additional opportunities to go further. This might include clearer visual labelling, such as teaspoons of sugar, to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink.”

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