Food safety and transparency: labelling of alcoholic beverage and adoption of the Regulation on Official Controls in the agri-food chain in the EU
On 13 March the Commission has adopted a report (hereinafter, the “Report”) on the mandatory labelling of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration for alcoholic beverages. The Commissioner for Health and Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, said: “This report supports the right of people in the European Union to be fully informed about what they drink. Moreover, it does not identify any objective grounds justifying the absence of the list of ingredients and nutrition information on alcoholic beverages. The expansion of voluntary initiatives from the sector has already been ongoing and is brought to the fore in the report”.
This Report responds to the obligation set for the Commission by Article 16(4) of Regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. The Regulation establishes the basis for a high level of consumer protection in relation to food information, ensuring that consumers are not misled by food labels and can make informed choices.
Under the current rules, unlike for other foods, the indication of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration is not mandatory for alcoholic beverages. With the nutrition declaration having become mandatory for the vast majority of pre-packed food as of 13 December 2016, the particular situation of alcoholic beverages is now even more salient. European consumers have therefore reduced access to the nutrition declaration and to the list of ingredients with the exception of ingredients which may have an allergenic effect.
Therefore, consumers are informed only when a substance or a product, amongst those listed in the Regulation as the most common allergens, is present in alcoholic beverages, like sulphites that are often added to wine.
However, other food ingredients which were not considered for the listing of substances that could trigger allergic reactions in certain groups of consumers are not in the Regulation and would therefore not be present on the label of alcoholic beverages due to the absence of a list of ingredients.
This approach does not seem to be entirely suitable given the recognition of the importance of information and the rights of citizens to be adequately informed of what they consume.
Regarding nutritional labelling, recital 42 of the Regulation encourages food business operators to provide on a voluntary basis the information contained in the nutrition declaration for foods such as alcoholic beverages for which the possibility should be given to declare only limited elements of the nutrition declaration.
Another EU provision on the labelling of alcoholic beverages is set out in Regulation (EU) No. 1308/2013 which provides on exhaustive set of technical standards which fully cover all oenological practices, manufacturing methods and means of presentation and labelling of wines.
In view of the lack of legal action in this area, some Member States have adopted national rules requesting partial indication of ingredients for certain alcoholic drinks. Even if the provisions for the nutrition declaration are fully harmonised, some Member States are also notifying national measures addressing the nutrition declaration for alcoholic beverages. Such behaviour contributes to an increased risk of market fragmentation.
The Report shows that the sector is more and more prepared to provide responses to consumers’ expectation to know what they are drinking. This is demonstrated by the expansion of concerted or independent voluntary initiatives developed and implemented by the sector to provide consumers with information on the list of ingredients, the energy value and/or the full nutrition declaration on or off label. It has to be particularly noted that a rising number of alcoholic beverages present on the EU market already bear the full nutrition declaration.
On the basis the Report, the EU alcoholic drinks industry should propose, within a year, a harmonised approach aiming to provide consumers with information about the ingredients present in alcoholic beverages and the nutritional value of alcoholic beverages. This proposal will be assessed by the Commission. Should the Commission consider the self-regulatory approached proposed by the industry as unsatisfactory, it would then launch an impact assessment to review further available options in line with Better Regulation principles.
In line with the need of transparency on foodstuffs, the European Parliament adopted on 15 March its position on the new Regulation on Official Controls (hereinafter, the “OC Regulation”), proposed by the European Commission to increase Member States’ ability to prevent, eliminate or reduce health risks to humans, animals and plants. The OC Regulation provides a package of measures that will strengthen the enforcement of health and safety standards as an international reference for integrated rules covering the whole agri-food chain.
The new rules aim at modernising and simplifying the European control system to ensure that food in the European Union is safe along the entire agri-food chain. They overhaul the current system and will provide a single framework for all official controls.
From one hand, EU citizens will benefit from safer products and more effective and more transparency on how controls are carried out to ensure food safety and high standards for plant health, animal health and welfare and to prevent the fraud. From another hand, businesses and authorities will benefit from reduced administrative burdens and more efficient processes.
Official controls, undertaken by competent authorities in each Member State, serve to check whether these rules are correctly implemented. It consists in checks performed by Member States in order to verify that businesses comply with agri-food chain rules. These rules cover the safety and quality of food and feed and also apply to agri-food chain products entering the EU from third countries and via the Internet. Consequently, e-commerce must be part of official controls. The OC Regulation aims to tackle food fraud. This includes checking compliance against marketing standards for agricultural products. Financial penalties for fraud will need to reflect the expected economic gain or a percentage of the turnover made by fraudulent operator.
The previous regulation, adopted in 2004, initiated the integration of rules on official controls. The OC Regulation, proposed by the Commission in 2013, takes it further in providing comprehensive risk-based control rules along the agri-food chain. This will allow national authorities to put their resources where they are most needed.
The OC Regulation will enter into force 20 days after its publication in the Official Journal of the EU. The rules will be gradually phased in to give EU countries and industry the time to adapt.