The BEUC, which represents consumer organisations from ten countries, suggested that the problem stems from a lack of EU rules defining terms like ‘artisanal’ or ‘whole grain’.
In its report, Food labels: tricks of the trade, the BEUC highlighted three practices that it said were particularly concerning. These included “industrial products” being labelled as “traditional” or “artisanal”; drinks or dairy products that contain little or no fruit displaying pictures of fruit on their packaging; and breads, biscuits or pasta containing “barley and fibre” being labelled as “whole grain”.
The BEUC added that these three categories may be the “tip of the iceberg”.
“It is striking that for a ‘pineapple & coconut’ drink, these fruits do not even make up one third of the product. Or that breadcrumbs labelled ‘grand-mother style’ contain industrial ingredients. Still, these are the kinds of misleading labelling practices that consumer organisations have repeatedly found across Europe,” Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, commented.
Consumer trust at stake
Goyens argued that these practices are undermining consumer trust throughout the European Union.
Data and examples cited in the report were collected by the BEUC network, which includes Altroconsumo in Italy, CLCV & UFC-Que Choisir in France, Consumentenbond in the Netherlands, dTest in Czech Republic, Forbrukerrådet in Norway, FRC in Switzerland, OCU in Spain, Test Achats/Test Aankoop in Belgium and ZPS in Slovenia.
Citing surveys conducted by BEUC members, Goyens stressed results have shown distrust rates of 85% in the Netherlands and 84% in Germany.
“Surveys in Germany and the Netherlands show that more than 80% of consumers do not trust food labels, and this report proves they have good reasons. Pressure from our member organisations have led some manufacturers to make their packaging more honest. But the EU institutions and Member States also need to step up their game.”
‘Make food labels more honest’
BEUC set out recommendations for EU institutions to “make food labels more honest”.
The EU should define the key terms commonly used on labels to market quality aspects of foods and beverages to consumers, such as ‘traditional’, ‘artisanal’ or ‘natural’, the consumer organisation suggested.
Additionally, an EU legal definition should set minimum levels of whole grain content for ‘whole grain’ claims and minimum content rules should be set for products which highlight certain ingredients, such as fruits, on the front of the pack. The percentage of advertised ingredients, such as fruit, should also be displayed front of pack, the consumer watchdog suggested.
“The EU law clearly states that food labelling and packaging should ‘not mislead the consumer’. However, manufacturers have been taking advantage of grey zones in the EU law to make their products look like they are better quality than they actually are. It is urgent that the EU institutions come up with a recipe to end those deceptive practices and that Member States make sure food makers comply with such rules,” the BEUC director general concluded.
Food industry 'takes issue'
Representatives of the European food sector said that the industry does not recognise the BEUC's characterisation of the situation.
A spokesperson for FoodDrinkEurope, a pan-European organisation representing food makers, insisted that the sector's approach to labelling is accurate and abides by "comprehensive" European regulatory oversight.
"We take issue with BEUC's accusation that the industry is deliberately misleading consumers about its products," the spokesperson told FoodNavigator. "European food companies have to comply already today with a comprehensive set of EU food legislation, including the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation and the Food Information to Consumers Regulation, which foresees that food information shall not be misleading as to the characteristics of the food. This has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis."