After years of debate, the European Parliament has finally approved a set of new food labeling rules. While producers applaud the new regulation, critics argue little may change for consumers.
New labeling rules require more and better information
European lawmakers gave the final nod on Wednesday to long-debated rules on food labeling aimed at giving consumers more and better information on the nutritional and energy content of products.
The goal of the new regulation, which includes specific requirements for displaying information, is to make food labels more understandable and relevant to consumers and to help them make more informed buying decisions.
Under the new rules, the energy content and amounts of fat, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugar, protein and salt must be stated in a legible tabular form on the packaging, all together in the same field of vision. And the information must be expressed per 100 grams or 100 milliliters.
Food producers can, additionally, include Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs), a system already widely used in the industry, or use the term 'per portion' once the European Commission has defined portion size.
Any allergenic substances must be clearly labeled as well.
New EU food labeling rules will give consumers more information about products
Moreover, the new rules require compulsory country-of-origin labeling for pork, poultry, lamb and goat meat as early as 2014. The EU agreed on mandatory origin labeling of fresh beef in 2000 when Europe's second BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) crisis emerged.
This crisis and the others that followed have highlighted the complexity of Europe's food chain and the need for traceability.
Currently in Europe, the country of origin only has to be marked on fresh fruit and vegetables as well as fish, olive oil and honey, in addition to beef.
A minimum font size of 1.2 millimeters has been set for lettering of normal packages or 0.9 millimeters for smaller packets.
Labeling is a hot-button topic in Europe not just because of food safety - the recent E.coli outbreak in Germany claimed nearly 50 lives – but also because of rising levels of obesity.
According to the World Health Organization, obesity has tripled in Europe since the 1980s, with rates still rising sharply, particularly among children. It is already responsible for 2 to 8 percent of health costs and 10 to 13 percent of deaths, depending on the region, according to the organization.
'A good compromise'
The European accord has been a long, hard-fought battle.
"Despite political and ideological differences in the European Parliament and despite national ideological convictions, we have come up with a good compromise," Renate Sommer, a parliamentarian member who led the negotiations with the European Council, said in a statement.
Some groups beg to differ, however. The consumer group Foodwatch, for instance, claims the food industry has successfully pushed through most of its demands – at the expense of consumers.
Obesity, especially in children, is a growing problem
"The labeling swindle continues," Foodwatch spokeswoman Christine Gross told Deutsche Welle.
Among Foodwatch's complaints: the new regulation doesn't include the "traffic light" coloring scheme, already used by some UK retailers.
Under the system, red, amber and green warning labels distinguish foods that are high in fat, saturated fats, sugar or salt. Green means "low" content, amber "medium" and red "high."
Nor are producers required to list the nutritional values on the front of packages, according to Gross. "Companies can talk about fitness on the front of their product but don't have to declare how much sugar it contains until the back of it," she said.
Consumer protection groups also wanted to see country-of-origin labels extended to processed meats and milk products as well as labels that list where animals were born, raised and slaughtered.
European parliamentarians initially supported many of the changes sought by consumer advocates such as Foodwatch but backed away after intensive industry lobbying, according to Gross.
Lawmakers decided against mandating the 'traffic-light' rating system
Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based transparency non-governmental organization, claims that European food and drink industries spent around 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) opposing the traffic-light system, believed to be one of the most expensive lobbying campaigns ever mounted in the EU.
The food industry maintains that consumers will benefit from the new rules.
"Certain valuable information for consumers will now be mandatory and not voluntary as it was in the past," said Peter Loosen, director of the Brussels office of the German food industry association (BBL). "This is a very important change."
Loosen argues that the proposed traffic-light system "would give false signals" to consumers by dividing products up into good and bad.
Food producers have argued all along that the colored tags would dissuade consumers from buying products by unfairly branding certain ones such as cheese, which could be labeled green for its calcium content but red for how fatty it can be.
"Let me point out that all of the member states were also opposed to this system," Loosen told Deutsche Welle, in defense of the industry's position.
That may well be the case, thanks to some hefty lobbying. For sure, the European Parliament has taken a big step forward in establishing industry rules for providing consumers with more and better information. But it may have missed the opportunity for taking a big leap.
Author: John Blau
Editor: Nicole Goebel