EP News, 22 March 2006
Should the food industry be allowed to state that a product is protein-rich or low-fat without consumers knowing exactly what this means and without being sure that the product isn't stuffed with other ingredients which are harmful to health? This is a key point in the debate on nutritional claims and one which is far from resolved.
The Committee on the Environment and Public Health adopted on Tuesday 21 March a second-reading report on this subject by Adriana Poli Bortone (UEN, IT) by 45 votes to 9 with six abstentions. The report will come up for its plenary vote in mid-May. And by then MEPs will have done a lot of negotiating to reach compromises on the thorny issue of "nutrient profiles".
At first reading Parliament removed this provision from the draft regulation submitted by the European Commission. The Commission wanted to force manufacturers to indicate the nutrient profile of a product (e.g. its fat, sugar and salt content) if they wish to highlight one of the ingredients in their sales pitch. Rich in fibre? Light? OK, but then please at least state the amount of fat, salt and sugar in the product so that the consumer can make an informed choice.
MEPs were against making this compulsory for each individual product, on the grounds that a person's overall diet is more important for health than any individual product they eat. MEPs also feared that neither the industry nor the authorities of the EU and the Member States have the means to comply with or to monitor such a requirement. However, in their common position the Member States re-introduced this provision. At its second reading on Tuesday, there was no majority within the Environment Committee in favour of removing the clause once again and not many significant amendments were adopted on this point. Negotiations are already scheduled between the political groups ahead of the plenary vote to see if a sufficiently broad consensus can be found (second-reading amendments must be approved by 367 MEPs) to amend this provision if it cannot be deleted.
There will certainly not be a complete consensus. Renate Sommer ( EPP-ED , DE ), for one, is passionately opposed to nutrient profiles, saying "this legislation will not bring any benefits to the consumer, whatever form it is given in the end" and that nutrient profiles must be eliminated once and for all. The opposite view came from Dorette Corbey (PES, NL), who argued that nutrient profiles are "essential, if only to prevent the consumer from making mistakes". A mid-way position was expressed by Dagmar Roth-Behrendt (PES, DE), who said "this provision is stupid, wrong and dangerous. But it is there. Now we must make it more digestible and avoid the worst". In the words of rapporteur Adriana Poli Bortone, the challenge is to "reconcile the differing requirements of health protection and proper information for consumers with the need not to overburden the food industries".
A new registration procedure
However, the Environment Committee did amend the Council's common position on another contentious point: the authorisation procedure. The regulation includes a list of claims ("sugar free", "low fat", etc.) and defines the conditions to be met for using them. To use new claims, the Commission proposed an authorisation procedure which MEPs also rejected at first reading, replacing it with a simpler notification procedure. Here too the Council has broadly reintroduced the original provisions.
To simplify the lives of companies in the food industry while not neglecting the interests of consumers, the Environment Committee is now proposing a third path: a quicker and more flexible registration procedure for health statements which do not claim to reduce the risk of illness. But the authorisation procedure would still be required for products which do make such claims or where the European Food Safety Agency, which is involved in the procedure, objects to a new registration.
Other important amendments seek to simplify the lives of the industry, especially smaller firms, to restrict health claims for children and to exclude from the regulation's scope any trade marks whose titles in themselves imply a nutritional claim.