Food information in the EU
Packaging is vital to conserve food, protect its state and quality, and prevent it from getting tampered with. Food packaging also serves to provide food information to consumers. Packaging is rarely devoid of wording, conveying messages to consumers about the weight, nutritional value, and origin of the food inside.
A new regulation adopted at EU level revamps the current rules on the provision of food information to consumers by introducing some new requirements and modernising current legislation to take account of new developments in the field of food information. As from 2014, this new regulation will apply automatically in all member states of the EU.
In contrast with its predecessor, the new regulation refers to food information rather than to food labelling. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that food information made available to the final consumer can be conveyed by means of a label, other accompanying material, or any other means including modern technology tools or verbal communication.
Irrespective of the method used, such information must be reliable. Misleading information is condemned. If a particular food is portrayed as possessing special characteristics when in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics, this is considered in itself as misleading.
Mandatory food information must be presented in a language easily understood by consumers and in a decipherable format, with a minimum font size of 1.2mm. A smaller font size is conceded to smaller food packaging. In case food allergens are present in the food, these also must be clearly displayed and highlighted in the list of ingredients. If a product is not pre-packed, such as food offered in eateries, information on allergens must also be provided.
Consumers’ dietary decisions are now assisted by mandatory nutrition labelling. As a minimum, nutrition labels must be presented on the back of the pack. Nutrition labelling on pre-packed food products must contain information that can be easily gauged, expressed per 100g or per 100ml of product or alternatively per portion basis. When this information is declared for a portion, the size of that portion must be indicated in conjunction with the number of portions contained in the package.
The nutritional information relates to the energy value displayed in both kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal) and six nutrients in the following order: fats, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt. Unprocessed foods, items for which nutrition information is not considered a determining factor for consumers’ purchasing decisions, or for which the packaging is too small to accommodate, are exempt from nutrition labels. Likewise alcoholic beverages are exempt, but the situation may change in the near future.
The responsibility lies squarely with the operator under whose name or business name the food is marketed if produced in the EU, or the importer into the EU of that product. Operators’ or importers, as the case may be, must ensure the presence and accuracy of the food information in accordance with the law and they are prohibited from supplying food they know or presume to be non-compliant.
When food is sold over the internet or by other means of distance communication, the mandatory information present on the label must be made available before the purchase is concluded. This information must also be displayed on the webpage if the food is sold online.
The marketing of organic foods has also been the subject of a recent EU initiative. Organic foods are produced from agricultural systems that minimise the human impact on the environment, with significantly less or no use of synthetic chemicals. The EU’s ‘leaf’ logo must now appear on all packaged organic foods. Organic food and drink are stamped with the logo on their packaging when they have complied with strict EU-wide rules. When using the EU organic logo, manufacturers must also put on the label the reference number of the certification authority and the names of the producer, processor or distributor who last handled the product. The logo remains optional on unpackaged produce and imports.
Food safety and consumer protection at EU level never fall by the wayside. From farm to fork, the EU regulates step by step our daily intakes.
Dr Grech is an associate with Guido de Marco & Associates and heads its European law division.