News 07.06.2011

EU Parliament approves new labelling rules – deceptive labels now permitted by law

  • Traffic light labels

After years of debate on what information consumers in supermarkets should have in future, the European Union Parliament today finally adopted the Food Information Regulation. The upshot: The food industry has come out on top. Not only has the traffic light label been rejected; nutritional labelling on the front of packages is not mandatory. Nor does information need to be provided on the origin of food except for fresh meat, and the minimum font size is 1.2 millimetres.

The food lobby’s strategy during years of struggle behind the scenes has paid off. Sales psychologists, copywriters and commercial artists can continue at their whim to mislead and confuse potential customers on the front of food packages. Although information on nutritional values must be given in reference to a uniform measure of 100 grams or millilitres, it can be hidden on the back of the packaging in fine print. The food industry invested one billion euros to prevent the mandatory use of the nutritional traffic light.

The industry blocks the provision of more detailed information on the origin of food

The provision of real transparency on the origin of a product’s main ingredients has also been dropped for now. This looked different at the first reading in the European Parliament. Parliamentarians wanted mandatory origin labelling for milk and milk products, as well as for products consisting primarily of a single ingredient. Additionally, labelling was to include information on the origin of meat and fish if these were contained in processed products. The food lobby was outraged. A press release from the central association of the German food industry (BLL) sharply criticised the EU Parliament for its decision: “The BLL rebuked the vote for the mandatory origin labelling of ingredients in processed foods…as going too far”, it said.

The industry’s reprimand to the parliament was effective – in a so-called ‘trialogue’ settlement process with the Council of Ministers and the EU Commission, all origin labelling except for fresh meat was dumped, and all other issues will be considered by the Commission in working groups in the next few years. The industry had reason to be pleased and announced in a press release: “The food industry welcomes the European Parliament’s vote.”

This is what the EU Parliament decided:

Nutrition labelling: Information on nutritional values for sugar, fat and salt will not be displayed on the easily understandable label with traffic light colours. Added to that, consumers are not supposed to find any information of this kind on the front of the packaging. The regulation calls only for data appearing in a table on the back of the package. Manufacturers can continue to promise consumers “fitness” and “light snacks” on the front and hide nutritional values on the back in fine print. There at least, information is in reference to a uniform measure of 100 grams or millilitres.

Origin labelling:Information on origin is mandatory only for fresh meat. Consumers will still not find out in which region cows grazed whose milk they are buying; they also won’t find out where the meat came from to make the sausages they are buying, or where the strawberries in the jam came from.

Size of print:Dr. Renate Sommer (CDU), correspondent for the European Parliament, exuberantly said in a press release: “All mandatory information must be readable in future.” If this is being hailed as progress for consumers, it is very telling. If font size is 1.2 millimetres (or in fact only 0.9 millimetres on smaller packages), many people will continue to have trouble deciphering information without a magnifying glass. This can’t be called good readability.

Indeed, a number of MPs in the European Parliament made genuine efforts to improve consumer rights through better rules on labelling. But power relations in Europe are different. Industry representatives reprimand parliament and allow it to wrest alibi concessions for the labelling of allergens and for providing information on nutritional value in fine print only, and the Council of Ministers pushes through the industry’s interests. But foodwatch will continue its work to curb these interests.