Fabian Demicoli

MEPs struggle to agree on EU food labelling laws

The European Parliament is struggling to forge a united position on a food labelling law ahead of a crucial vote this month. MEPs have been re-running many of the same arguments that paralysed the Parliament last year during the first reading of the food labelling regulation. Conflict over amendments prompted a decision this week to delay the vote in the Parliament's environment, health and food safety committee by one week until 19 April.

 

Renate Sommer, a German centre-right MEP who is drafting the Parliament's position, is urging her fellow MEPs to unite behind her favoured approach, where calorie content would be the only mandatory nutritional information to appear on the front of food packaging: "That and the use-by-date is what the consumer is really interested in," Sommer told European Voice.

But an alliance of Socialists, European United Left and Green MEPs, aided by some Liberals, is battling for salt, sugar, fat and saturated fat to be included on the front of packaging too, with further information on the back of the pack on elements such as transfats.

Glenis Willmott, a UK Socialist MEP, said: "If we are really serious about obesity, heart disease and diabetes …and the costs of treating those diseases, then people have to have [nutritional] information in a readily-accessible form." Putting such information on the front of packs would help people make healthy choices, she said.

Clashes

Whatever the Parliament agrees, MEPs are likely to clash with European health ministers, who are reluctant to specify where nutritional information should appear on food packaging, other than a demand that all values should be in the same field of vision. National diplomats are uneasy with the Parliament's emphasis on front-of-pack labels, fearing that it would be impossible for legal experts to agree, for example, on a satisfactory definition of the ‘front' of a milk carton.

MEPs are also at odds over plans to oblige the food industry to label more products with information about the country of origin. Currently, only a few products – including beef, honey, fresh fruit and vegetables – carry country-of-origin labels. The Parliament voted last year to extend this to cover all fresh meat, prepared meals with meat or fish as the main ingredient, and dairy products – an approach that has been opposed by the food industry.

Sommer is opposed to additional country-of-origin labels without a detailed impact assessment, but she may lose this argument in the face of strong support from other groups.

Here too the Parliament is likely to find difficulties in reconciling its views with member states. Sommer warned that if the Parliament demands too much, negotiations with EU ministers could collapse, citing the example of the ‘novel food' discussions, where three years of work went to waste when Parliament and Council failed last month to agree on cloning. "Everybody is afraid" of a repeat of the novel foods failure, she said. "The Council is afraid of that. The Commission is afraid of that…Then we would have to wait another ten years for a food labelling regulation."

Willmott said that this view was "nonsense", because the Council is in favour of country-of-origin labelling for fresh meat. "People have the right to know where their meat comes from…if it is not too difficult for beef, so why should it be too difficult for pork, or lamb or other meats?"

Discussions on the food labelling regulation are entering the endgame, after more than three years of twists and turns in the EU legislative and lobbying labyrinth, and hindered by Lisbon treaty delays. Negotiations between the Council and Parliament are to begin in May, but nobody is expecting a quick agreement.

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