EU food legislation: presenting the facts

Packaging Professional magazine
27 May 2012
food waste

Lorraine Eve, Regulatory Affairs Manager at Ashbury Labelling, London, UK, considers the impact of the new regulation on the provision of food information to consumers.

The EU Regulation Number 1169/2011 on Provisions of Food Information to Consumers is set to dramatically affect the way food and drink is packaged. For the first time, the regulation will steer the packaging industry away from applying its own voluntary labelling requirements, ushering in a mandatory approach to regulating food packaging information.

The legislation covers a number of areas of food information, including allergen labelling, date of durability and country of origin labelling, while the introduction of mandatory nutrition declarations and the settings of a minimum font size are two of the key changes. These two aspects of the regulation will require a wholesale redesign of nearly all packaging currently on the market, with the minimum font size ruling a particular challenge for the packaging industry, especially for multi-language labels.

While this ruling certainly poses a challenge to the food and drink industry, it doesn’t require companies to make instant changes. Companies have until 13 December 2014 to redesign their product labels to comply with the new rules. Any item labelled and placed on the market prior to this date can continue to be sold until stocks of that product are exhausted.

This three-year window is good news for the food and drink industry – but companies should not be lulled into a false sense of security. It makes sense to begin planning the steps towards compliance sooner rather than later. Having said that, with many aspects of the regulation still due to be clarified, there are also risks attached to rushing into redesigning labels. Contentious issues still need to be addressed, such as the extension of mandatory country of origin labelling. There remains a split between EU member states that want to see mandatory country of origin labelling extended to more foods, and those that do not see any clear benefit for consumers.

The EU plans to conduct a study to assess the impact of mandatory origin labelling for fresh and frozen meat, looking at how listing information such as place of birth, raising and slaughter will affect labelling. The aim is to complete this by the end of 2012 and to draft rules after this.

New rules on allergen labelling state that an allergenic substance must be clearly indicated through a typeset that distinguishes it from the rest of the ingredients – for example font, style or background colour. Once this has been done, one might think that an allergenic substance could be repeated in a ‘contains’ box on a voluntary basis. In fact, that may not be the case, because separate provisions on declaring voluntary food information require that any such information meets the mandatory requirements.

These aspects of the regulation still requiring clarification mean that companies that seek to achieve compliance too soon will most likely have to carry out further redesigns to ensure compliance once all aspects of the regulation have been finalised. Because of this, the best approach is to begin planning and seeking expert advice early, followed by a staggered process towards achieving compliance. It will also help minimise time and cost issues if steps towards becoming compliant are taken during a typical redesign lifecycle – although this could prove more difficult for smaller companies, which are likely to disproportionately bear the costs of the changes. Of course, the costs of not complying would be greater still, should this result in an enforcement challenge.

The current labelling rules date back to 1978, and those on nutrition declarations to 1990. Since the publication of these, consumer expectations around food labelling have changed considerably. This time around, there’s a strong focus on providing consumers with information that enables them to make more informed choices about the food and drink products they buy. Because it will automatically apply to all EU member states, the regulation should lead to more consistent labelling, which is particularly important with the rise in distance selling.