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11th Apr 2021

EU food labelling law spotlights strength of industry lobbying

  • Lobbying on food label regulation was of a "comparable level" to the infamous 2007 REACH law regulating chemicals (Photo: Flickr.com)

Next month one of the most ferociously contested EU laws in Brussels’ history is expected to be given the final nod by member states.

The quest to change food labelling rules so that consumers can easily tell whether a product is healthy provoked a bitter three-year battle between food companies, health campaigners and legislators.

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The resulting law, agreed by the European Parliament in July, is largely seen as a win for industry which pulled out all the stops in its bid to shape the legislation.

Among those at the heart of the lobbying maelstrom was Glenis Willmott.

The British Socialist MEP proposed a traffic-light labelling system that would have seen ingredients ranked red, amber or green for sugar, fat or salt content – a system strongly opposed by industry who argued it would discriminate against foods such as olive oil, healthy but high in fat.

"In all my time as an MEP I have never received so many emails, letters, faxes and phone calls requesting meetings, inviting me to breakfasts, lunches and dinners, round table discussions, seminars and conferences all organised and paid for by food and drink industry representatives, and all opposing my proposals for greater transparency and honesty in food labelling," Willmott told this website.

She said it is "right" that the views of industry affected by new legislation be heard but it is "wrong that the sheer power and wealth of these companies (…) should be allowed to influence policy-making to such an extreme that those with vested interests are almost writing the legislation."

Carl Schlyter, a Green MEP from Sweden, said in his experience the lobbying was of a "comparable level" to around the infamous 2007 REACH law regulating chemicals, which occupies a special place in the annals of Brussels lobbying history.

The actual tactics were perceived as new and more aggressive too.

"Aside from the usual emails and telephone calls, they [the lobbyists] were coming directly to the door and knocking, without an appointment," said one parliament source.

In one of the most notorious incidents associated with the law’s passing, the Alliance for Food Transparency, a front for food colouring companies, managed to distribute leaflets in the environment committee ahead of a vote on the issue.

"It was really underhand. The name sounded like it was an NGO and because it was on the desks it also looked like one of the official documents handed out to committees. You had to read it really carefully to see what it really was," said the source.

Socialist MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt called the approach "dark and dirty".

With Willmott’s traffic light proposal already rejected in first reading in June 2010, the final draft of the laws says labels must contain the energy content as well as the amount of fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt in a food product. And the information must be expressed per 100g or 100ml.

Potential allergy-inducing ingredients, such as peanuts, as well as nano-ingredients, will also have to be listed while the list of foods for which the country of origin has to be stated has been extended.

But in what is seen as another victory for industry, the information does not have to be displayed on the front of the package and nor is the font size as big as consumer advocates – who point to the rising obesity levels in Europe - wanted.

Matthias Wolfschmidt, campaign director, at Foodwatch, a consumer focussed lobby group based in Berlin, says an illustrative example of the power of the industry lobby was a press release sent out by the German food industry group, BBL, directly after the June 2010 vote shooting down the traffic light system.

The statement praised the parliament for rejecting the traffic light system but said obliging companies to state where the ingredients of processed food came from - as suggested by MEPs at the time - was going too far. An impact assessment would have to be carried out first, said the BBL statement.

"And that is exactly what then was finally agreed," said Wolfschmidt.

For its part, food industry representatives said they would "rather look forward than back."

"We are concentrating on the implementation of the law and the application of it," said Margaret Kelly of FoodDrinkEurope, an industry pressure group, declining to answer questions on the nature of the lobbying around the law.

Schlyter believes the antics surrounding the law only confirms the need for stricter rules governing relations between parliament’s 736 MEPs and the thousands of lobbyists in Brussels.

One of his suggestions is that a lobbyist should be obliged to send a copy of every email they send to an MEP to a public register as well making it easier for outsiders to see where pressure has been brought to bear.

"There is a systematic problem with lobbying in that it is very one-sided. Economic resources buy influence. NGOs and small businesses have no influence," he said.

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