In a letter to EU ministers, Andriukaitis said that national governments should “strengthen their national enforcement activities on the labelling practices followed by food businesses”.
“The provision of food information should pursue a high level of protection of consumers’ health and interests by providing the basis for final consumers to make informed choices and to make safe use of food, with particular regard to health, economic, environmental, social and ethical considerations,” he wrote.
Andriukaitis stressed that the European Union has a number of food laws designed to prevent food makers and distributors misleading consumers through labelling or advertising. In particular, he noted that the EU has a regulation specifically demanding clear communication.
Regulation (EU) 1169/2011 states: “Food information shall not be misleading, particularly as to the character of food and in particular as to its nature, identity, properties, composition, quality, durability, country of origin or place of provenance, method of manufacture or production… Food information shall be accurate, clear and easy to understand for the consumer.”
Moreover, the EC food commissioner said that the European Court of Justice has also ruled that even when food information is provided in accordance with EU legislation, this may be insufficient if an “erroneous or misleading” impression is given to the consumer via packaging or labelling.
“Misleading labelling practices would merit further attention in your national control activities,” Andriukaitis told ministers.
Mulling tighter regulation
While Andriukaitis said that it was the responsibility of Member States to enforce existing regulations, he added that the possibility of increased oversight is also being considered.
The statement comes in response to a report from the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), which argued that food makers use “grey areas” in EU legislation to “sugar coat” the quality of their products.
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 Monique Goyens concluded.
In today’s (16 July) response, Andriukaitis noted: “My services are considering and analysing further BEUC’s call to modify… EU rules.”
Commenting on the letter, the commissioner said: “All of us like to make fully informed choices when it comes to the food we buy. Hence, information on labels should not mislead us.”