What does the future hold for food labelling rules?
In the battle against chronic disease, health will play an increasing role in designing food labelling rules, writes Xavier Prats Monné.
What does the future hold for food labelling rules? | Photo credit: Fotolia
Food labelling has been a key EU policy for decades, since the first directive to harmonise national rules - in what was then the European Community - was adopted more than 30 years ago.
At first, the objectives were purely economic as the internal market was still under construction, dealing with divergent national labelling requirements was a necessity, since they impeded the free circulation of foods and generated market inequalities.
Harmonisation was needed to set a level playing field in which businesses could thrive. Following basic principles of economics, it was argued that harmonised labelling rules would ensure that consumers everywhere in the EU would have the same non-misleading information upon which to base their choices.
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Over the past decades, as more countries have joined the EU, food law has evolved but the underlying principle - to avoid fragmentation of the internal market while ensuring a high level of consumer protection - has remained intact. Over time, another priority has been added to the mix - taking into account the association between food and health.
The average western diet with a high trans-fat, sugar and salt intake, together with insufficient physical activity, is a major risk factor for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Such diseases do not only affect individual sufferers, they impact negatively on society as a whole and the economy in terms of health care costs and productivity losses. The figures are striking: chronic diseases are responsible for 70 per cent of all deaths in the EU each year.
In addition, treating diseases linked to obesity - and bear in mind that 52 per cent of adults in the EU are overweight or obese - accounts for seven per cent of national health budgets.
While public health remains the primary competence of member states, in 2007 the European Commission adopted the strategy for Europe on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues, to help support national efforts to promote healthier diets. One of the six priorities of the strategy was notably to have better informed consumers.
The two most recent pieces of legislation adopted by the EU to better inform consumers about food content are the regulation on claims, and the food information regulation. The claims regulation covers nutritional and health claims made by manufacturers, and aims to ensure that any such claims are scientifically proven so that consumers are not misled.
To move from thousands of non-proven claims, to a few hundred substantiated ones has taken years, but now consumers can be sure that if there is a health claim on a pre-packed food product, it is there for a valid reason.
The food information regulation also follows the principle of informed choice, and requires mandatory nutritional information on all packaged foods.
However, the regulation goes beyond this and actually explores new developments in the area of food information and health by setting a flexible framework that will allow the EU to increasingly contribute to promoting public health while respecting its mandate in this area. We are now in an analysis phase.
Before we consider adding to or modifying our food information legislation we need to study the impact of recent national initiatives - such as the UK traffic light scheme and a new system currently being tested in France. Both these initiatives are presented as innovative and simple ways to provide nutritional information. Is this true? What is the actual impact? Can we learn from them?
Another area of analysis and exploration is alternative, off-pack means. Can new technologies, such as QR codes or apps, avoid overwhelming consumers, while allowing them to easily find the specific information they need?
Clearly, an important element to consider these days is how the information is provided, rather than what information is provided. In the future what will really matter is that food information actually benefits consumers and their health, taking into account differing levels of education and knowledge.
I am convinced that our legislation is fit to cope with future developments in the area of food information.
The challenge for us will be to find the best way to keep on empowering all consumers, so that they can proactively improve their health, while, at the same time, leaving flexibility for the food industry to innovate.
Clearly, any future action will have to be supported by strong and up-to-date behavioural data reflecting these societal developments.
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