EU DG Sante changes in policymaking strategy? The alcoholic beverages report case

The DG Sante of the EU Commission on 13th March 2017 published a report – due by 13th December 2014 – responding to the obligation set by Article 16(4) of Regulation (EU) No 1169/20111 on the provision of food information to consumers.

This provision exempted alcoholic beverages containing more than 1,2 % by volume of alcohol from the mandatory list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration and stated that the Commission shall produce a report addressing whether alcoholic beverages should be covered, in particular, by the requirement to provide the information on the energy value, and the reasons justifying possible exemptions, taking into account the need to ensure coherence with other relevant Union policies and considering in this context the need to propose a definition of ‘alcopops’.

Here below the Commission’s conclusions of the report and a brief comment about the solution proposed by the DG Sante:

“Under the current rules, unlike for other foods, the indication of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration is not obligatory 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. The European Parliament, but also the World Health Organisation, consumer and public health organisations are now asking for new labelling rules for alcoholic beverages, especially concerning the labelling of the energy value.

Member States’ experts indicated some expectations, especially regarding the nutrition declaration, and more particularly for the mandatory labelling of the energy value.

In the past, the economic sectors concerned have voiced their opposition to a mandatory labelling regime. Today, the sector acknowledges the right of consumers to know what they are drinking. On that basis, an increasing number of voluntary initiatives have emerged providing consumers with information on the ingredients, the energy value or the full nutrition declaration of alcoholic beverages and addressing consumers’ expectations for more information on the drinks they consume. Originally, such voluntary information was mainly accessible through new information and communication technologies. However, according to information from the sector, it should now increasingly be found on the labels themselves.

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 national initiatives contribute to an increased risk of market fragmentation.

The list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration are key information particulars that help consumers to make more informed and healthier choices. The exemptions from the list of ingredients and from the nutrition declaration for certain foods cover, mainly, single ingredient products, whose name suffice to inform the consumers about their content, like salt, fruits and vegetables. However, in the case of alcoholic beverages, it cannot be assumed that consumers are necessarily aware of the generally various ingredients used in the production process and of their nutritional value.

On the basis of the information reviewed, the Commission has not identified objective grounds that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutrition information on alcoholic beverages or a differentiated treatment for some alcoholic beverages, such as ‘alcopops’. At this stage, the Commission therefore sees no need or clear added value for a specific definition of ‘alcopops’ for labelling purposes.

This report shows that the sector is increasingly prepared to provide responses to consumers’ expectations 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. Taking into account these recent developments, the Commission considers that as a first step, current voluntary initiatives should be allowed to develop further so as to provide list of ingredients and nutrition declaration. It therefore invites the industry to respond to consumers’ expectations and present within a year of adoption of this report a self-regulatory proposal that would cover the entire sector of alcoholic beverages.

The Commission will assess the industry’s proposal. Should the Commission consider the self-regulatory approach proposed by the industry as unsatisfactory, it would then launch an impact assessment to review further available options: in line with Better Regulation principles this impact assessment would consider regulatory as well as non-regulatory options, in particular, regarding, the provision of information on the energy value of alcoholic beverages; such assessment should carefully consider the impact of options on the internal market, on the economic sectors concerned, on consumers’ needs and the actual use of this information, as well as on international trade.”

Commission’s recent conclusions are quite peculiar, at least in the food sector panorama. Since today, DG Sante never delegated similar tasks to industry: it has to be held in account that from one side the information discussed constitute – fundamentally – labeling obligation, but on the other side the choice to intervene or not could greatly impact on sensitive public health issues and on Member States expenses for prevention of NCDs and alcohol related diseases.

Politically speaking, this could be read as a signal of political weakness of the Commission? Maybe, but on my view it is more probably a way to “put the hot potato” in the hands of the industry, that in case of inaction will be most probably the target of the blame of the public opinion next year.

The efforts made by the industry in the recent years, in terms of consumer information and promotion of responsible consumption of alcohol, are undubitable: but now the sector has to show its full maturity and present a balanced proposal. Otherwise, it could face some difficult times on the road ahead.

Food defense requirements in EU?

During the next meeting of the ENVI Committee (Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of the EU Parliament), on 27-28th February, there will be an extremely interesting exchange of views with the EU Commission about the food defense topic.

This is a very very preliminary step and no specific initiative at EU level at the moment is foreseen, but for sure it could be a starting point in that sense.

Here below an extract from the ENVI Committee report, explaining where do we stand now:

“Food defense means the protection of food from intentional contamination or adulteration by biological, chemical, physical, or radiological agents. It includes measures regarding prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery from intentional acts of food contamination.

The WHO, in 2007, identified intentional food contamination as one of the main global health threats of the 21st century and stated that food has become an instrument for terrorist attacks.

In the European food industry, food defense is a rather new concept, unlike in the USA where the concept of food defense originated and where it is extensively regulated. In the past years, incidents such as terrorist attacks and food fraud have contributed to the development and implementation of food defense systems in at least some Member States.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001 in the US, the “Health and Security Committee” was set up in the EU. This group was given a formal status and assigned specific tasks in 2013, when Decision 1082/2013/EU on serious cross-border threats was adopted. At global level, the Commission also participates in the Global Health Security Initiative on CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) threats, working closely with the WHO and the G7+ states to create a global strategy for preparedness and response to potential health threats.

However, there is no comprehensive regulation of food defense at EU level. In view of the rising importance of the issue, the objective of this exchange of views is to discuss existing EU and Member State policies and to hear the Commission’s point of view in relation to possible EU action in this area.”

(Source: ENVI Committee, European Parliament)