The European Parliament and the EU's member states have struck a compromise that could see foods high in fat and sugar continuing to be labeled as nutritious.
Should gummi bears, with zero fat but plenty of sugar, be called healthy?
The compromise, which could be voted through when the parliament has its second reading of the bill next week, has been slammed by Europe's main consumer watchdog as confusing and contradictory for shoppers.
Legislation was proposed by the European Commission in 2003 to ensure that foods using tags like "high fiber," "light" or "vitamin rich" also respect a "nutritional profile" on the quantities of fat, sugar and salt they contain.
The proposed law was designed to stop manufacturers of products like lollipops -- made essentially of sugar -- from boasting that their products are low in fat.
Dual labels se n d co n fusi n g message
Consumer groups want people to know exactly what they are biting into
The new compromise, however, would allow such tags to be used even if the product is high in fat, sugar or salt as long as a label pointing that out appears on the same part of the packaging as the advertising, an EU official told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
"This amendment confuses consumers with contradictory messages and small print and should not be supported," the European Consumers' Organization (BEUC) said in a statement. "Even worse, consumers might think wrongly that the reason the food is healthy is because of its 'increased' salt, sugar or fat content."
The only products that will continue to be subject to stricter marketing procedures will be those claiming to reduce a specific health risk, such as heart disease. Not all EU member states have standard nutritional information labels common in the United States.
According to a survey conducted by BEUC last year, 53 percent of people place confidence in the labels that appear on food products they buy.
Problem lies with eati n g habits, n ot fatty foods
The food industry argues that individuals are responsible for deciding what they eat
Europe's food lobby has worked hard to influence the legislation with around 100 representatives hoping to get the ear of parliamentarians on March 21 when the assembly's health commission discussed the bill.
The food industry has firmly opposed the plans, claiming "there are no bad products, only bad eating habits." Industry representative argued that stricter advertising and labeling rules would subject food and beverage companies to a massive financial burden.
The agreement appears to have watered down the commission's plans. But the EU executive's spokesman for health issues, Philip Tod, seemed satisfied.
"This compromise, if it is adopted, is nicely balanced because it retains the concept of a nutritional profile, even if there are some changes," he said, adding that "consumers will be fully informed."
The idea of a "nutritional profile" was dropped last year, during the first reading of the draft legislation by the assembly, but was reintroduced after heavy pressure from consumer groups.
The agreement comes as European and US officials, as well as representatives of the food and drink industry meet in Brussels to discuss ways to combat obesity and its causes.