Public Hearing on the proposal for a regulation on “food information to consumers"
Rapporteur Renate Sommer (EPP-ED, DE) kicked off the hearing, addressing an audience that was primarily made up of representation from the food and drink industry, with strong presence particularly from the UK and Germany. Sommer acknowledged right away that the legislation at hand was ‘extremely complex and risky in a number of aspects', and stressed the difficulty of being charged with bringing together various bits of legislation into one in a simplified way.
13 October – Opinion Out
4 November – Dicussion of Opinion
10 November – Deadline for Amendments
2 December – Vote In Committee
Roseling Lecourt from the French presidency followed up stating that ‘consumers want clear and objective information', and added that this information should be scientifically justified. Recognising the other side of the debate, she admitted that industry is worried about the cost and competitive issues that would arise from this ‘burden'. With regards to labelling, she opined that while it is necessary for labels to become more legible, the 3mm size proposed is too rigid. She stopped short of declaring a council position with regards to the legibility of labelling, saying that this would become clear in due time, however stated that realistic implementation is the aim of the council.
Jose-Maria Espuny Moyano from ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Committee) believed that a broad consensus on labelling had been reached, but warned that sometimes ‘too much information is as problematic as too little'. He highlighted some important figures, such as the fact that 75% of the food industry is small/medium enterprises, and that with 65% of enterprises selling to other countries, the need for a common consensus is high. While agreeing on the merits of food labelling, he stressed the need for training for the consumer, and suggested that a web page for information, while not the absolute answer, would be a good start. Touching on other subjects, he spoke as follows: On the subject of alcohol, he was in agreement with the commission that it requires a different system of labelling; Consumers should be more aware of the country of origin of products; The commission could have been more explicit on the subject of regulation waivers; The commission should not be planning a series of penalties – these needs to be tailored from country to country depending on wealth; A database of information would make the directive more transparent.
Speaking on the topic of nutrient profiles was Wolfgang Gelbmann from the EFSA. He outlined that the commission plans to set nutrient profiles by January 19 2009. Pointing out that profiles for general and specific food categories both had disadvantages, he suggested that a combination approach would be needed.
Following on was Nina-Alexandra von Radowitz of EuroCommerce, speaking from the perspective of the retail sector. She acknowledged that marketing and consumer changes over the past few decades meant that a new approach to food information was both necessary and welcome. However, she quickly urged that the legislation must not affect the smooth running of the EU economy. Outlining some of EuroCommerce's positions, she stated: Eurocommerce is against the 3mm proposal, believing it to be too big and leaving no room for translation. This could have the knock on effect of bigger packaging which would lead to more waste, and subsequently bigger portion sizes; The possibility for member-states to create schemes would disrupt the cohesive running of the single market; The country of origin should only be mandatory when its absence would lead to serious misinterpretation.
John Bowis (EPP-ED, UK) cited the example of British bacon, which in cases has been found to contain meat from pigs that have had no rearing in the UK.
Angelika Mrohs from the CIAA (representing the food and drink industry), then had the turn to speaking further on the subject of labelling. She began by stating what she believed to be the role of food labelling: To empower consumers to make informed choices. Not to be a substitute for education. The priority must be about information and no judgement in relation to food. Speaking on the theme of simplification, she opined that the legislation should not be too detailed, should aim to establish minimum requirements, and avoid the duplication of information. On nutritional labelling, she welcomed the recognition of the GDA approach, as in her opinion it provides the consumer with factual information that can be interpreted. She stressed the need for energy in terms of kcals to be the main element of labelling; pointing out that this was the one issue that she believed had the biggest impact for consumers with regards to obesity. She was very clear in her position on the ‘traffic light' system, stating it to be against her preferred form of labelling, which should be ‘simple but not simplistic'. Touching on legibility, she believed that the increasing demand for information had affected the legibility of labelling, stressing that it was about much more than just font size.
Next up was Ludger Fischer of UEAPME, who for the first time in the debate covered the topic of labelling on non-pre-packed food, something that he believed to be impractical. This was later supported by many of the representatives from the food industry, who spoke of the ‘artistic' nature of their work, not to mention the day to day variations that occur when the sourcing of ingredients is not fixed. Likewise, those who produced small packaged items would have an impossible task. This was also highly supported by following contributions most notably from confectionary producers, who also raised the point of the ‘character' of items such as chocolate boxes, which would be aesthetically spoiled by front labelling. To add further complication to this, packaging such as that for chocolate boxes that contained multi-items would indeed have a further obstacle. Furthermore, the possibility of ‘secret' recipes being revealed and copied by bigger producers was raised as a potential problem. He quickly dismissed the 3mm proposal, and estimated that the total cost burden of food labelling to SMEs would be 6bn€, seriously damaging the industry. In addition to this, he believed that it would have an impact on European culture, part of which is the high prominence and success of SMEs.
The loss of business to big enterprises as a result of this proposal and the subsequent consequences of this was also raised by Dorette Corbey MEP (PES, NL). The UK representative for UEAPME suggested these consequences to be: Producers giving up on using fresh ingredients.A fall in the variety of products. On the topic of cost, Renate Sommer at this point raised the fear of it being offloaded onto the consumer.
Representing BEUC, Kees de Winter welcomed the simplification of food information, however felt that better provisions of alcohol labelling were needed. He believed that font size and contrast requirements are a necessity, praising the 3mm recommendation and also that voluntary information must not displace mandatory information. He was very supportive of the traffic light system, something that he believed could be combined with the GDA one, but said that the front of the pack should be limited to 4 nutritional categories. On the back of the pack, information could be provided about the ‘big 8' plus transfats. He also spoke of the need for labelling per 100g and per portion.
Contributing from the floor, a representative from the consumer magazine ‘Which?' was also supportive of the traffic light system, stating that field studies had shown it to be by far the most effective information providing system. He pointed out that consumers need a quick interpretation tool, something enabled by the traffic light system. On the topic of cost, he echoed a point raised by the European heart network that the cost of ill health – for cardiovascular disease alone estimated to be 192bn€ in the EU annually – far outweighs the cost of food labelling. In an effective speech that included props, a representative from the German confectionary industry raised the issue of losing the possibility of multi-lingual labelling, and in effect creating de facto trade barriers. He also called for the exemption for small packages to be increased from 25cm2 to 50 or even 100. He also mooted the possibility of exempting seasonal products specifically aimed at children, such as Easter bunny chocolates. On the topic of the traffic light system, he said that too many ambiguities existed. While red for a traffic light means stop, it does not mean ‘don't eat', rather eat but with conscience. Likewise, green might not necessarily equate to eat all you want.
In concluding, Renate Sommer thanked the various stakeholders for attending the hearing, and said that never had it been more apparent that better regulation that is at harmony with all parties is needed. She outlined the parliamentary timetable as follows: Procedure: Co-decision, first reading
Rapporteur: Renate Sommer (EPP-ED, DE)
Documents: Legislative Observatory