Food labelling row shows no signs of abating

Posted by Chris Whitehouse on 11/03/14

Italy and the UK are at loggerheads over the latter’s voluntary front of pack “traffic light” food labelling scheme, and the Commission is caught in the middle.

Ever since its introduction in June 2013, the British Government’s Front of Pack nutrition labelling scheme proved controversial and generated tensions among other EU Member States. The voluntary scheme, which has been adopted by all major UK retailers, introduced a so-called ‘hybrid’ system based on a mix of traditional guideline daily amounts (GDAs) and traffic light labelling. The centre of the controversy is precisely the traffic light system, which allocates red, yellow and green colours for total fat, salt, saturated fat, sugar and calories per 100g/ml, in an attempt to provide an easy visual system for assessing the nutritional properties of a food.

When the scheme was introduced last summer, British MEP and Member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Glenis Willmott argued that traffic light labelling should be made mandatory across Europe. After only a few months of implementation, stakeholders seem to be thinking that this outcome is being achieved through the UK voluntary scheme, and some of them are not happy. During the last Agriculture and Fisheries Council of 2013 the Italian Government, supported by a number of delegations including the French, Spanish and Greek, presented its concerns regarding the scheme and argued that it has the potential to affect the free movement of goods and harm traditional regional food products, which cannot be reformulated.

On that occasion, the Commission played down the concerns aired by the Italian and other delegations by highlighting that the UK scheme is voluntary and mentioning the possibility of preparing a report on all the labelling systems put in place by Member States. This clearly was not enough to placate the Italian industry, which took the opportunity of the Competitiveness Council at the end of February to present its case again.

A comprehensive briefing, similar to that prepared in advance of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in December was presented by the Italian delegation, outlining the potential impact of the scheme on the internal market, health and consumers, and agriculture, and urging the Commission to assess its effects on the internal market; the competitiveness of the European food industry; the provision of correct health information to consumers; and the safeguard of traditional regional food products.

Once again the Commission, led in this occasion by the Italian Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Antonio Tajani, stressed the voluntary nature of the scheme. However, officials went a step further and said that, taking into account the “vivid reactions” triggered by the introduction of the British nutrition labelling scheme, they will examine the requests made by the Italian delegation “paying attention that the scheme respects the principles of functioning of the internal market.”

It is unclear what the Commission’s examination can achieve, other than delay. In the meantime, the contenders remain entrenched on their positions, with the Italian industry forecasting a fall of up to 11% in Italian exports to the UK, and the British Department of Health determined that the implementation of it flagship scheme will continue.

There’ll be several more rounds to go before this fight is settled one way or the other.

Chris Whitehouse is MD of leading political consultancy www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk whose Food Regulation Team advise many European food companies.

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