12th May 2021

EU unveils new food labelling proposals amid obesity concerns

The European Commission is hoping to reduce the growing problem of obesity in Europe with simpler, larger, more harmonised food labelling rules across the Union.

Health commissioner Markos Kyprianou unveiled a legislative proposal on Wednesday (30 January) that would see key nutritional information such as sugar, fat and salt content displayed on the front of the label of pre-packaged food.

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"Food labels can have a huge influence on consumers' purchasing decisions," said the commissioner. "Confusing, overloaded or misleading labels can be more of a hindrance than a help to the consumer."

"Today's proposal aims to ensure that fool labels carry the essential information in a clear and legible way so that EU citizens are empowered to make balanced dietary choices," he said.

Obesity is one of the greatest – and most costly - health problems faced by Europe. The World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe says that the prevalence of obesity has tripled in many countries in the region since the 1980s.

Obesity is already responsible for 2-8% of health costs and 10-13% of deaths in different parts of Europe, according to the WHO.

The commission has made the issue one of its priorities and is promoting healthier diets and more exercise. One of the more important aspects of this campaign requires providing consumers with clear and easily comparable nutritional labelling.

While the commission did consider an "traffic-light" labelling scheme - which uses red, amber and green colour coding to show whether levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt are high, medium or low - in the end, this was rejected.

"The concern with this system is that it could lead to oversimplification," said the commissioner.

"We want informed consumers, but we don't want to make the decision for the consumer. Otherwise we would end up publishing a 'menu of the day' and telling people what to eat."

Instead, Mr Kyprianous said the commission favoured flexibility.

It will be mandatory for key information on energy, fat, saturated fat, and carbohydrates with reference to sugars and salt content per 100 ml/g or per portion of the product to be placed on the front of the product. The recommended daily allowance of these nutrients must also be indicated.

But precisely how this information is to be presented is to be left up to food producers.

A colour-coded system is favoured by the European Consumers' Association (BEUC). It says that their research shows that colour-coding is easiest for all consumers to understand at a glance, while alternative schemes present a confusing grid of percentages, which can be difficult to comprehend, especially as different consumers have different recommended energy intake amounts.

"To be really meaningful," said Monique Goyens, the director general of BEUC, "the information which is provided must be comprehensive and easily understandable and some improvements are clearly needed on these points."

The UK government backed a similar but voluntary scheme in 2004. Some supermarkets have begun using the system, but the food industry on the whole is opposed to colour-coding, saying that the colour red suggests to consumers that the food is dangerous.

The consumer advocacy group is also disappointed that the declaration of other key nutrients of public health significance will be voluntary. BEUC would like to see mandatory labelling of the "big 8" - protein, fat, saturated fat, sugar, salt, carbohydrates, fibre and energy, as well as information on trans fats on the back of pack.

Diabetes groups also favour the traffic light system for its ease of use.

Additionally, the law would also require that labelling of allergenic substances such as peanuts, milk and shellfish be extended to cover food that is not packaged, such as restaurant dishes.

Commissioner Kyprianou said that some 70 percent of reported anaphalactic shocks come after the consumption of non-pre-packaged food.

Although alcopops would be covered by the draft law, the commission has not included beers, wine and spirits. It has said it will propose labelling regulations for the three other alcohol categories at a later date.

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