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MEPs set out clearer and more consistent food labelling rules

Food labels should feature mandatory nutritional information and guideline daily amounts, according to draft EU legislation as adopted by the European Parliament on Wednesday. However, MEPs rejected a proposal for ‘traffic light’ values to highlight the salt, sugar and fat content of processed foods.

Country of origin labelling is already compulsory for certain foods, such as beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables. MEPs supported extending this to all meat, poultry, dairy products and other single-ingredient products. They also voted for the country of origin to be stated for meat, poultry and fish when used as an ingredient in processed food. However, this may be subject to an impact assessment.

The final vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday was 559 in favour, 54 against and 32 abstentions.  However, no quick agreement is expected with the Council of Ministers so the draft legislation is likely to return to Parliament for a second reading at a later stage. Once the legislation is adopted, food businesses will have three years to adapt to the rules. Smaller operators, with fewer than 100 employees and an annual turnover under 5 million, would have five years to comply.

The proposed Regulation had been the subject of lobbying from all sides in the UK: from food manufacturers and retailers, consumer groups, farmers and, most recently, the Women’s Institutes.

For further background on the substance of the proposal, as amended by MEPs, see the press release on the European Parliament’s website.

Extracts from Tuesday’s debate in Strasbourg:

Glenis Willmott MEP (Labour, East Midlands): My guiding principles have been to ask: what information do consumers want when buying food for their families, and how best can we provide this information?

I am proposing we use a colour-coding system…not to make a judgement on the product as a whole, but to inform consumers if the product they are buying is low, medium or high in salt, fat and sugar. This will only apply to complex processed foods such as ready-to-eat meals, breakfast cereals and all of those convenience foods produced on an industrial scale whose nutritional content which is often poor consumers are often unaware of or misinformed about.

I would also urge colleagues to support mandatory country-of-origin labelling. It is clear that consumers are becoming more conscious of the origin of the food on their plate and want honest food labelling. Of course this will not always be feasible. Nevertheless, for single products it is clear that their agricultural origin should be available to consumers and this is 100% feasible.

Struan Stevenson MEP (Conservative, Scotland): I firmly believe that consumers have a right to know the origin of the food they purchase and, particularly in the case of meat, if it has been produced to high welfare standards and has not been transported over great distances prior to slaughter. But the sourcing of raw materials in processed food is irreversibly complex, as ingredients are chosen based on price, quality and availability and countries of origin in a single meat processing plant may alter day by day, and even hour by hour.

The constant adaptation of labels would carry higher costs and will inevitably increase packaging waste. These additional costs would be passed on to the consumer…

It is still possible for low-quality whiskies from countries like India, China and Japan to pass themselves off as the genuine article by carrying pictures, images or names on their labels which are reminiscent of the traditional whisky-producing countries in the EU in order to increase their competitive advantage and mislead the consumer. We must guard against this, and I therefore urge you to support Amendment 254.

James Nicholson MEP (UUP, Northern Ireland): Let me make one thing very clear. I am totally in favour of labelling of origin, but I think we have to be very clear about what we mean by labelling of origin. We must ensure first of all that people the consumers know where the produce came from. Then the consumer also has to know very clearly how that food was prepared or how it got to where it is. I agree with the rapporteur on this, and I think we are in danger here of going too far too soon.

Diane Dodds MEP (DUP, Northern Ireland): We must be careful not to create information overload in any labelling system. Too much unintelligible information will lead to consumers ignoring the essential information and paying attention to information which has no real value. Therefore simplicity and valuable information should be the key criteria in a labelling system.

60% of the fish we eat is imported into the EU and in most cases not reared under the same strict environmental and regulatory regimes. We need to ensure that our systems create level playing fields for our communities and our industries.

In Northern Ireland the agri-food industry is hugely important and again I would appeal for us not to penalise the industry with unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape.

Chris Davies MEP (Liberal Democrat, North West): Personally I will be voting for traffic lights, country-of-origin labelling and more information about alcoholic drinks, but past experience suggests there is still plenty of room for confusion. In his opening remarks the Commissioner referred to the legislation on food health claims. In a response to a parliamentary question he has just given me, he says that 44 000 applications for health claims have been made by companies. The European Food Safety Authority is completely swamped and the Commission has not yet given a single opinion in response to these applications.

Emma McClarkin MEP (Conservative, East Midlands): The traffic light system of labelling excessively simplifies nutritional profiles, causing even the most basic information to become vague and abstract. This directly affects the choices available to consumers and has a disproportionately negative impact on staple foods. Just as certain Members have been quick to make judgements, the traffic light system provides too judgemental an assessment of foodstuffs and the complex nutritional composition of food; its place in the diet cannot be reduced to a simple colour.

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