Commission memo (MEMO/11/481), 6 July 2011
How is an allergic-to-peanuts teenager supposed to know what he can eat when he is out with friends? How can a woman, who wants to cut down on the amount of salt she is eating, tell which snack is the best choice? How can consumers know where the meat they just bought came from? While enjoying food "shopping" by Internet or catalogue, how can I be sure to have access to the same food information as in the shop? And will you be able to find and read easily the relevant information on the food labels?
These are issues that we encounter, either ourselves personally or through relatives, friends or acquaintances, every day. A newly adopted EU law attempts to provide the answers and solutions through a set of new food labelling rules. For instance, when this law enters into force, information about certain substances that cause allergies or intolerances, such as peanuts or milk, will have to be provided both for packaged and non-pre-packed foods, including those sold in restaurants and cafés. On pre-packed foods, the major allergens will be highlighted in the list of ingredients. The legislation also requires that certain nutrition information is provided on the majority of processed foods. With respect to pre-packed meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry, information on where it comes from will need to be given. Consumers wishing to buy their foods via the Internet, or other means of distance selling, will be provided with important food information before making their purchase. Consumers will also be able to read easily the food labels without having to use a magnifying glass when this legislation comes into force.
Why has the food labelling legislation been changed?
The current legislation on general food labelling dates back to 1978 and nutrition labelling rules were adopted in 1990. Consumer demands and marketing practices have changed significantly since then. EU consumers want to be better informed when purchasing food and to have labels that are simple, legible, understandable and not misleading. After more than 3 years in the making, the new legislation will help them make informed decisions on the food they buy, and could contribute to better lifestyle choices.
What will the new rules mean for me?
The new legislation lays down general principles on food labelling. It provides new rules on legibility of information. It also strengthens the rules intended to prevent misleading practices. It should, therefore, help you make the better choice corresponding to your needs. It achieves this in various practical ways. Some of the additional information requirements, for instance, concern substances causing allergies or intolerances. There are also new requirements to provide information on the nutrient content of foods. New rules on labelling meat will enable the consumer to know the origin of fresh meat derived from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. Engineered nanomaterials will also need to be indicated in the list of ingredients.
What is the point of providing information if it is too small to read?
This has certainly been a common problem. And this is exactly one of the main issues the new legislation addresses. It requires that mandatory information must be printed in a minimum size and voluntary information (e.g. slogans or claims) must not be presented in a way that adversely affects the presentation of the mandatory information. Further rules on legibility will be established in the future.
I want to eat healthily. Will the new rules help me do so?
Yes. Information on certain important nutritional characteristics of processed foods – energy, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt – will need to be given. This will enable you to compare foods before purchasing, helping you select a diet according to your personal requirements. It will also be possible for information on selected nutrients to be included on the front of the package, which will enable you to compare products more easily when you are shopping. These new rules are an important step forward and the Commission will review the developments after a period of time.
How are the information needs of people suffering from allergies taken into account?
The new legislation strengthens the existing provisions concerning the provision of information on certain substances causing allergic reactions or intolerances in order to inform and protect the health of allergic consumers when they consume pre-packed and non-pre-packed foods and when they eat out. Food businesses will need to make available such information on all foods and the national authorities will be able to decide the means by which such information should be provided.
How can I get the relevant food information if I buy my food over the Internet or through catalogues?
The new legislation requires explicitly that when food is sold by means of distance communication most of the mandatory information that appears on the label shall be available before the purchase is concluded and shall appear on the material supporting the distance selling (webpage or catalogue) or other appropriate means. This requirement takes full account of all ways of supplying food to consumers.
Will I be better informed on the origin of my food with the new rules?
Origin labelling becomes mandatory for fresh meat from sheep, goat, poultry and pigs. The new rules maintain, in general, the current approach that country of origin or place of provenance labelling on food is voluntary, unless its absence could mislead consumers. This labelling will apply after the adoption of implementing rules that will determine the way to express the information, including whether origin should be expressed as Member State or EU and on which point(s) of the life of the animal (place of birth, place of rearing, place of slaughtering). The implementing rules are to be introduced within two years.
At the same time, certain criteria are laid down for producers who wish to include this information on the origin of their products voluntarily. In such cases, and in line with international standards (i.e. World Trade Organization and Codex Alimentarius), the country of origin should be determined in accordance with the Union Custom Code. The country of origin or place of provenance of the main ingredients must also be listed if those ingredients originate from a different place than the finished product. For example, butter churned in Belgium from Danish milk could be labelled as "produced in Belgium from Danish milk." Those rules will protect consumers from misleading origin indications and will ensure a level playing field among food business operators.
How can I know whether I eat the "authentic," and not the "fake," food?
Counterfeiting of food and beverages is a major concern. It can take various forms, such as adulterating a product by dilution or substitution of inferior ingredients or implying a false origin of the product.
The new rules will ensure that when a food is not exactly what it appears to be, relevant information will be provided to prevent consumers from being misled by a certain presentation or appearance. When some ingredients, normally expected to be in the food, have been replaced by others, the substitute ingredients will be labelled with prominence on the package and not only in the list of ingredients. With respect to meat and fishery products, prominent information will be given on the presence of added water and of any added proteins of different animal origin. In addition, such foods when they give the impression that they are made of a whole piece of meat or fish, although they consist of different pieces combined together, will be labelled as "formed meat" or "formed fish."
As to foods implying or indicating a false origin, the new rules set certain criteria in order to ensure that voluntary origin indications do not mislead consumers. Operators who make origin claims are required to provide further information so that people know where the characterising ingredient of the food actually comes from, not just the last country where the food was processed.
Why were wine and all alcoholic beverages excluded? This does not help to protect children and young people from alcopops and other alcoholic drinks.
Alcoholic beverages are not excluded from the scope of the legislation. They are only provisionally exempt from the requirements to provide an ingredient list and nutrition information. However, within three years after the entry into force of the new rules, the Commission will specifically study this issue and, if necessary, propose amendments to the rules.
What remains to be done?
The Commission will develop specific rules on the mandatory labelling of the origin of meat and will clarify how the new rules on the voluntary origin labelling will apply. This is expected to be done within the next two years.
When will this law come into effect?
The new labelling requirements will apply three years after the formal adoption of the legislation. However, in the case of nutrition labelling the obligation to include the nutrition information will not apply until five years after the formal adoption although after three years the nutrition labelling will need to be presented in accordance with the new rules.