31.3.2009   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 77/81


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers’

COM(2008) 40 final — 2008/0028 (COD)

(2009/C 77/20)

On 10 March 2008, the Council decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 95 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 2 September 2008. The rapporteur was Mr José Ma Espuny Moyano.

At its 447th plenary session, held on 17 and 18 September 2008 (meeting of 18 September), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 77 votes to 3.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1

The EESC welcomes this Commission initiative which will facilitate consumer understanding and simplify legislation.

1.2

However, the Committee wishes to make it known that unless the information indicated in point 3.4.1 is backed up in advance by proper measures to educate final consumers, it will lose most of its value and fail to meet most of its objectives. The EESC therefore finds it regrettable that the proposal is not accompanied by measures to support education of consumers either within Member States or at European level. At the very least, providing a guide to priority measures in this area as an annex to the Regulation might be a very useful first step.

1.3

As regards reference to origin, the proposal maintains the current rules. In this context, considering the interest shown by consumers in the origin of food products, the EESC regrets that the proposed regulation does not provide for mandatory indication of origin on the label. The EESC believes, however, that a distinction should be made between primary and secondary processing products, with the obligation to mention the principal agricultural ingredients of the latter products being determined on a case-by-case basis.

1.4

The EESC is deeply concerned about the development of additional ‘national schemes’ (described in chapter VII of the proposal) which, rather than offering any additional benefits, become an excuse to interfere in the free movement of the internal market. The risk this poses is particularly serious for SMEs since, as the Commission points out in its proposal, more than 65 % of food businesses market their products in other Member States. For this reason, SMEs will have more difficulties in sending their products to other Member States, with knock-on effects for their costs and competitiveness. Only by ensuring that these ‘national schemes’ provide additional information, which is not obligatory on the label but available via other means (Internet, free telephone numbers, etc.), can these detrimental effects be avoided.

1.5

The EESC understands that, for reasons of consistency, the Commission intends to apply the same system of derogations to alcoholic products, a system which could be reviewed within five years, following the publication of the report on the subject.

1.6

The EESC suggests that Member States have at their disposal the necessary list of infringements and penalties to prevent any breach of these common rules, which must be harmonised if the same behaviour is to be penalised with a similar degree of severity in all Member States.

1.7

In this connection, the EESC calls on the Commission and Member States to establish information tools and specifically a data base for public consultation on the information that must be included on the labelling of various foods. This would ensure that businesses, consumers and the authorities use the same guide when the legislation is implemented.

1.8

As far as legibility is concerned, the 3mm requirement proposed by the Commission does not seem feasible. Various elements such as the quantity of information, the size and the form of packaging would have to be taken into account. An appropriate reference could be the typeface of the EU's Official Journal.

1.9

Finally, with a view to achieving the desired clarity and simplification, the EESC believes that the references to the repealed rules should be more explicit, thus making the Regulation more readable and facilitating its application.

2.   Gist of the Commission proposal

2.1

This proposal seeks to consolidate current legislation on the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs (including nutrition labelling) into a Regulation, with a view to modernising, simplifying and clarifying it.

2.2

The proposal will repeal current legislation on food labelling: Directives 2000/13/EC, 90/496/EEC (within five years), 87/250/EEC, 94/54/EC, 1999/10/EC, 2002/67/EC, 2004/77/EC and Regulation 608/2004.

2.3

The main objectives of the proposal are to ensure a high level of consumer protection and the smooth functioning of the internal market.

2.4

The scope of legislation in this area is being broadened to include all aspects of food information made available to the final consumer by economic operators and also to cover food delivered by mass caterers and foods intended for supply to mass caterers.

2.5

The general principles and mandatory labelling requirements established under previous legislation will be maintained, while at the same time expanding certain aspects such as the responsibilities of each link in the food chain and the circumstances in which it is obligatory to indicate the country of origin.

2.6

Provisions on nutrition labelling differ significantly from previous legislation in that they include an obligation to indicate six nutrients or substances both in terms of quantity and as a percentage of the recommended daily intake.

2.7

Another major change concerns the coexistence of ‘national schemes’ for nutrition labelling alongside the provisions of the Regulation, which complement the rules for presenting nutrition labelling information with voluntary requirements set at national level.

2.8

The draft Regulation stipulates that many of the necessary changes to the proposal should be carried out using the comitology procedure. Various transitional periods are provided for to facilitate its entry into force.

2.9

The annexes provide further details on the following: ingredients that cause allergies or intolerances, additional mandatory particulars, nutrition labelling derogations, name of the food, quantitative indication and designation of ingredients, net quantity declaration, ‘use by’ date, alcoholic strength, reference intakes, energy, and expression and presentation of nutrition declaration.

2.10

Finally, the Regulation is due to come into force 20 days after its adoption, although the actual implementation of the mandatory particulars and the nutrition declaration will be postponed by three years (five years for the latter in the case of SMEs).

3.   General comments

3.1   Consolidation, modernisation, simplification

3.1.1

European legislation on the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs has helped, over the course of the past almost 30 years, to maintain a high level of consumer protection and to ensure that the internal market runs smoothly.

3.1.2

The current proposal seeks to consolidate, update and simplify existing legislation, to cut red tape, and to provide greater transparency for consumers. The EESC supports these objectives but regrets the complexity of the proposed text, which would stop the regulation from being directly applicable.

3.2   Development of additional ‘national schemes’

3.2.1

There is no doubt that a regulation which consolidates and updates the current individual sets of rules will lead to more consistency in levels of consumer protection and greater harmonisation. However, the EESC is concerned that the introduction of ‘national schemes’, provided for in Articles 44 et seq, may undermine the objectives of harmonisation and consistency. Under the new provisions, Member States will be allowed to adopt national schemes with additional requirements which, although voluntary, will result in more information on labels and could confuse consumers.

3.2.2

The problem becomes worse if we consider that every national market sells products from many other Member States. Those products will be able to display various items of information which have been decided on in those other States and which may not be understood by a consumer unfamiliar with such information.

3.3   Mandatory information requirements

3.3.1

The draft Regulation incorporates the vast majority of mandatory particulars that are stipulated under current legislation and which have proven useful in protecting the health and interests of consumers (such as name, list of ingredients, quantity, dates, name or business name and contact address). Some of these particulars are covered in more detail in the annexes.

3.3.2

The experience of the past few years has shown that such requirements are useful and should be maintained. In the light of this experience, the EESC would also like to see mandatory indication of the origin of food, of the primary processing products and, on the basis of a case-by-assessment of the secondary processing products, the origin of the main ingredients used to make them.

3.4   Nutrition declaration

3.4.1

First and foremost, consideration should be given to the fact that European consumers need to be educated in nutrition in order to able to follow a balanced diet. Without such an education, the consumer will be unable to understand or make use of any of the information provided. The measures for increasing nutrition information are to be welcomed, but we must not forget that without education these measures will not have the desired effect.

3.4.2

Given the nutritional imbalances in the European population, any information measures must be accompanied by a major education drive.

3.4.3

The proposal represents, for various reasons, a major break with current legislation. First of all, it makes nutrition information mandatory, whereas under Directive 90/496/EEC this was voluntary. Second, it stipulates that the following should be declared: energy value and amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars and salt. Third, not only will the quantity of these substances be provided, but also the percentage that they represent of the daily recommended intake, thus seeking to offer guidance to the consumer as to the appropriate quantity that may be consumed as part of a balanced diet. Finally, the proposal stipulates that this information should be presented in the principal field of vision of the packaging and set out in a particular way.

3.4.4

Given the amount of mandatory information that already appears on labels, it is important to assess very carefully which nutrition information is useful to the consumer. The move from voluntary nutrition labelling to mandatory nutrition labelling will in itself constitute a major change for a large number of SMEs in the agri-food sector. The mandatory information could therefore be limited to what is currently advocated on a voluntary basis, namely indication of energy, protein, carbohydrates and fats.

3.4.5

The main advantage of the nutrition labelling model proposed by the Commission is that it provides information (recommended daily allowances) showing the consumer how the product should form part of an appropriate diet, and does not assess the product in itself, but within the context of such a diet, as advised by nutrition experts.

3.5   Additional obligatory information about the food's country of origin

3.5.1

Current legislation already stipulates that in cases where there might be some confusion on the part of the consumer, foods should indicate the country of origin.

3.5.2

The EESC considers that indication of origin not only meets the needs of consumers, but is also an effective way of improving market transparency and supporting the future development of the agriculture sector and of rural areas throughout the EU. The establishment of a direct link with the place of origin of a food and the indication of the production methods used are crucial to the European development model, based on respect for rules that guarantee food safety, environmental safety, animal welfare and adequate public health standards.

3.5.3

Indication of origin should therefore be obligatory for all non-processed or primary processing agri-food products. In the case of secondary processing products, the obligation to indicate the provenance of the main agricultural raw materials used to make the final product should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Brussels, 18 September 2008.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Dimitris DIMITRIADIS