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Size no longer matters in the EU

Industry - 04-04-2007 - 08:01
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Rear view of a man and child pushing a shopping trolley through a supermarket

All change on packet sizes?

The free movement of goods is an EU principle and key to its economic success. Half a billion citizens can choose from a vast range of shopping products from 27 states. Standardisation, including packaging, has been vital in making this happen. But with the single market securely in place, has the time come to reverse the process? More choice is great, but might the more vulnerable be "lost in the supermarket"? This is the question now confronting the Parliament.

The European Commission wants to liberalise food packaging sizes. Many food packaging laws are over 30 years old and accumulated amendments make them confusing and hard to apply.
In the 1960s different national rules on the volume of packets and bottles were a major barrier to the free movement of goods between the Member States. Harmonisation helped sweep those barriers aside. But, in 2000 the European Court of Justice ruled that EU countries could not refuse products from other member states because they used different pack sizes, making the law unnecessary.      
What does the customer want?
A Eurobarometer survey in October 2001 asked consumers about their experience with packaged and bottled products sold in shops and supermarkets. Most welcomed standard sizes, but also wanted more choice.
In response, the Commission proposed in 2004 a near total deregulation of package sizes. EU standards would be scrapped in favour of market mechanisms. Only wine, spirits, instant coffee and white sugar would retain their standard sizes. 
Parliament supports the Commission's proposal in general, but wants better protection for consumers and small and medium enterprises. It is concerned that disabled and elderly customers could be confused about whether they are getting value for money. Many of the people in these demographic groups tend to use local shops, which often don't indicate unit prices, something supermarkets are obliged to do. In addition, Parliament is concerned that there may be costs for smaller firms, who may find that existing machinery catering to specific packet sizes becomes obsolete.
It suggests that the list of regulated products should be extended to include ground coffee, butter, salt, rice, pasta and milk. 
Ministers would prefer to see a gradual phasing out of packaging norms over five years for the products proposed by the EP and over six years for white sugar. Following the EP's strong line on protection for consumers and small companies, the Council also proposes:
  • a regular check on how the new law affects producers and consumers
  • more visible product labels to help customers estimate value for money
What's next?
The ball is now back in Parliament's court. It looks likely that the EP will approve the legislation in May, provided that there is agreement that it can be revised if it is found that the law has had a negative impact on customers or producers.
REF.: 20070323STO04523