Twenty years after the adoption of the food labelling directive (79/112/EEC) - which, in the case of alcohol, simply promised future rules on labelling - there is still no comprehensive Community legislation on alcohol labelling. As a result, paradoxically, alcoholic drinks have been subject to less stringent labelling requirements than non-alcoholic beverages. It was the proposal submitted by the Commission to plug this gap that MEPs debated on the basis of Mr Schnellhardt's report.
MEPs are generally agreed on the principle of labelling. The main split is between those (particularly from wine-growing regions) who want future labelling rules for ingredients to be laid down in accordance with specific agricultural regulations governing particular beverages (where Parliament would not be involved) and those who want the rules drawn up outside the agricultural context in accordance with the codecision procedure (which would involve Parliament). According to the Commission proposal, the labelling rules must be adopted within three years of 1 July
The Schnellhardt report, which contains 13 amendments (to the Commission proposal) adopted earlier by the Environment Committee, plumps for codecision, proposing that future labelling on the ingredients of most alcoholic drinks (including wine, liqueurs, spirits and beer) should be included in new annexes to the food labelling directive.
However, a further 11 amendments have been tabled by political groups or individual MEPs, including three (amendments 14, 16 and 19) which would tip the balance towards agricultural demands.
Kicking off the debate, Mr Schnellhardt said the proposal would close a gap. Everyone agreed that alcoholic drinks should be labelled in the interest of both the internal market and consumers. However, Parliament had to protest when it was proposed that codecision would apply in only a limited way. Beer, spirits, etc should receive equal treatment, although account could also be taken of the different characteristics of individual drinks. The aim was to create a level playing field and avoid discrimination. Hence the need for a uniform procedure with the same deadline for all.
For the Agriculture Committee, Mrs Christa Klass (E, EPP) said that everyone was attached to the important principle that the consumer had to be informed. Each beverage, from wine to alcopops, was special and different. Wine was a natural drink made from the grape and here the existing agricultural market regulations should be followed. However, it was different with alcopops, for which particular rules were urgently needed.
For the Economic Committee, Mrs Astrid Lulling (L, EPP) made a distinction between industrially produced drinks, where codecision was appropriate, and wine and spirits, which were agricultural products subject to a market organization where, under Article 43, only consultation of Parliament was needed.
Phillip Whitehead (Staffordshire East and Derby, PES) said that common policies on labelling required common procedures. The aim was not to stigmatize alcoholic drinks. However, alcopops (which were produced in his constituency) posed health risks and so had to be presented in a special way. He could not accept that there was an area of labelling in which Parliament should play no part.
For the EPP, Mrs Ursula Schleicher (D) said that even in sixteenth century Bavaria beer had been regarded as a foodstuff. However, consumers wanted reliable information on the quality of their beverages. People suffering from diabetes needed to know how much sugar they contained. She was opposed to putting cider and beer in one quarter and wine in another.
For the ELDR, Mrs Karin Riis-Jorgensen (Dk) agreed that the alcohol market should not be split into separate sectors despite the fact that there was a wine culture in the south and a beer culture in the north. There should be the same labelling at the same time for all. The label should also indicate the alcohol content so that people knew how much they could drink before driving.
For the UFE, Mr Christian Cabrol (F) said the concerns about alcopops directed at young people were justified. Although they had an alcoholic strength of 3 to 4 degrees, they had so much sugar in them that you couldn't taste the alcohol.
Responding to the debate, Industry Commissioner Martin Bangemann said that the Commission had focused on procedure rather than substance in order to make progress. The aim was to get the information the consumer needed on to the label. "If that is our common goal, then we are at one," he told the House. He did not want to get into a culture battle of beer against wine or beer regions against wine regions (although he pointed out that wine was mentioned in the Bible). They were not saying that there was some fundamental difference in quality between beer and wine or between beer and grappa. Consumers knew what to drink and what not to drink. People bought fine wines for their taste and to savour them but not to "get smashed". They could do that more cheaply otherwise.
The Commission's proposal designed to oblige EU ministers to agree on labelling rules for alcoholic drinks within 3 years from 1 July 1998 was approved with a number of amendments including those from the Environment Committee, designed to ensure that Parliament is involved in the detail and another calling attention for the urgent need for new labelling rules for new alcoholic drinks such as 'alcopops'.