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Important points 1994-1999

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Letting consumers know what is in their food

 

People have a right to know what they are eating. This is the basis for the EP's repeated insistence throughout the current parliamentary term on the proper labelling of food sold to the Union's 375 million consumers - unlike some products, food is something which directly concerns every man, woman and child in Europe. Only when potential purchasers have such information are they in a position to make a rational choice of whether or not to buy it. Moreover, accurate labelling assists the smooth running of Europe's common market and is in the interests of the food industry as well as consumers. However, Parliament has also been keen not to make life unnecessarily difficult for the food industry by demanding labelling requirements which are too onerous.

 

Basic legislation

The Union's basic legislation on the labelling of foodstuffs is based on two premises: (1) the principal consideration for any labelling rules should be the need to protect and inform the consumer and (2) differences between national laws on labelling can lead to unequal conditions of competition. It lays down general rules applicable to all foodstuffs put on the market, specific rules being drawn up additionally, where appropriate, for particular foods. In particular, it provides that labelling must not mislead the purchaser as to the characteristics of a food or attribute to it properties which it does not possess (eg it must not make misleading claims about the food's capacity to improve people's health or make them slim). This basic legislation was amended, with a big input by the EP, during the current parliamentary term. The amending act, at Parliament's insistence, defends the basic principle of free trade within the Community as reflected in the October 1995 Béarnaise Sauce judgment of the Court of Justice. On a separate point, in order to help those suffering from allergies, Parliament also secured agreement from the Council that when the ingredient starch may contain gluten its specific vegetable origin must be indicated.

eparate legislation where the EP has been very active governs labelling in three specific areas: alcoholic drinks, beef, and products made using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

 

Alcohol

The labelling of the ingredients of alcoholic drinks was being dealt with earlier this year. Twenty years after the adoption of the Union's basic legislation on food labelling there is still no comprehensive Community legislation on the labelling of these drinks, which, somewhat surprisingly, therefore, are subject to less stringent requirements than non-alcoholic drinks. MEPs have urged that the Commission's Scientific Commission for Food be consulted on all proposals for labelling alcohol that might have implications for human health. The need for information on the ingredients of alcoholic drinks is all the more urgent, MEPs have said, in view of the recent increase in drinks (eg alcopops) geared towards young people.

 

Beef

wpe1.gif (22272 bytes)At the height of the "mad cow" crisis Parliament was consulted on a proposal for the labelling of beef and beef products. The aim, which Parliament supported, was to establish a reliable system for the identification and registration of bovine animals in order to restore consumer confidence. In its report, Parliament wanted compulsory labelling of beef and beef products giving specific information, such as the place of birth and sex of the animal, the method of fattening, date of slaughter, the animal's breed and details of antibiotics and stimulants administered. The Commission had wanted labelling left optional. The Council fell in with Parliament's view and provided that labelling would be compulsory from 1 January 2000. However, the Commission subsequently asked the Court of Justice to annul the regulation and the case was still with the Court at the start of this year.

 

Genetically modified organisms and novel foods

Food products - eg tomatoes, sugar beet or soya beans (which are used in a vast number of processed foods) - involving GMOs are dealt with in a patchwork of legislative measures.

One directive requires manufacturers or importers who wish to place GMOs on the market to submit a proposal for labelling and packaging, which must cover the specific nature of the product and the exact conditions of use (including, when appropriate, the type of environment for which the product is suited). Earlier this year Parliament was considering a proposal to amend this directive so as to guarantee the highest possible level of protection for human health and the environment while, at the same time, taking measures to build consumer confidence in the technology. The marketing of a variety of genetically modified soyabean and a variety of genetically modified maize was authorized under the directive - before a specific regulation on novel foods came into force in 1997 - and special rules for their labelling have been agreed incorporating much of what Parliament demanded. Thus, Parliament succeeded in persuading Council to strike out a Commission proposal permitting the label to indicate that a foodstuff "may contain" or "may have been produced from" genetically modified produce. MEPs thought this might lead to confusion. Accordingly, tests must be carried out to determine whether genetically modified produce is present. If it is, the label must indicate this clearly. The EP also brought the Council round to its view that manufacturers should be able to test protein as well as DNA to detect whether genetic modification has been involved. Protein tests are often more cost-effective and simpler for manufacturers to carry out. The original Commission text had referred only to DNA.

However, now the labelling of novel foods is covered by the specific regulation adopted in 1997. This legislation, to which Parliament contributed significantly, lays down general labelling requirements for novel foods. For instance, the labels must ensure that the consumer is informed of any characteristic or property (such as composition, nutritional value or effects or intended use) which mean that a novel food or novel food ingredient is no longer equivalent to an existing food or ingredient. They must also inform the consumer of the presence of new material with possible health implications for certain sections of the population (eg allergy sufferers) or which may give rise to ethical concerns (eg where genetic material from a pig has been incorporated in a plant this will be of concern to consumers who do not eat pork on religious grounds). The presence in the food of genetically modified organisms must also be indicated on the label. However, before these general rules can take effect the European Commission must produce further detailed labelling rules. At the start of this year MEPs were still awaiting such rules.

 

Much still to do

Clearly, then, food labelling within the Union is far from finished business and it can be expected with confidence that the next Parliament will return to it with the ultimate aim of building up a comprehensive corpus of food labelling legislation in the interests of consumers and food suppliers alike.

 

Further information: Patrick REYNOLDS ( tel. 0032-2-284 4706 or email preynolds@europarl. eu.int)

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