European food manufacturers will soon have to label the complete content of all foodstuffs as the European Commission's proposal for an end to the '25 per cent' rule was endorsed yesterday by the European Council.
The new proposal forms part of an amendment to the food labelling Directive (2000/13/EC OJ L 109, 6.5.200 (1)), intended to ensure that consumers are aware of all ingredients present in foodstuffs and, in particular, to enable consumers with allergies to identify any allergenic ingredients that may be present.
The '25 per cent' rule was introduced into Community legislation more than 20 years ago in order to avoid inordinately long lists of ingredients. It is based on the principle that the consumer knows the composition of compound ingredients and can therefore deduce, for example, that jam added to biscuits is prepared with fruit and sugar.
Since this time, food production has become more and more complex, and people eat a lot more processed foods. Over the past few years, consumers have repeatedly expressed the wish to be better informed about the foodstuffs they purchase, and specifically about their composition, even if full ingredient labelling will inevitably make ingredient lists longer. Recent food scares have clearly reinforced this need for information.
Welcoming the Council's common position, David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said: "This is a very clear example of the European Union working concretely in favour of citizens' day-to-day needs. I am particularly committed to a revised labelling regime that gives consumers much more information about potential allergens. This regime will extend from foodstuffs to include alcoholic beverages."
According to the amendment the new rules will also extend to alcoholic beverages if they contain an ingredient on the allergen list, for example sulphite in wines. Sulphites are additives used as preservatives in many foodstuffs, including wines, beer and cider. Many people suffer from intolerance to sulphites with symptoms such as asthma attacks, which may have serious consequences.
Under the new rules, it will be mandatory to list all sub-ingredients of compound ingredients, which means that allergens cannot be "hidden". One example of this is sauces that might contain allergenic ingredients like eggs, milk or mustard. Previously such sub-ingredients did not have to be listed if they were part of a compound ingredient that made up less than 25 per cent of the product; now all such allergenic ingredients will have to be declared.
In addition, some labelling exceptions will no longer be accepted for allergens. Previously it was possible to declare ingredients only as a category (e.g. 'vegetable oil'), but the new rules will require the source to be indicated for all allergenic ingredients so that for example 'peanut oil' must be specified. Similarly, the source of a natural flavour such as a nut will have to be indicated, while it is currently labelled only as 'natural flavour'.
The potential allergenic ingredients to be labelled are: cereals containing gluten and related products; crustaceans and products thereof; eggs; fish; peanuts; soybeans; milk and dairy products (including lactose); nuts and nut products; celery; mustard; sesame seeds; sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre.
According to allergy associations, writes the Commission this week, 8 per cent of children and 3 per cent of adults are affected in Europe by food allergies or food intolerance, with new allergens emerging on a regular basis. The Commission hopes that the new labelling requirements will ensure that those consumers at risk have all the necessary information at their disposable.
The Commission stressed this week that the new requirements have been drafted with certain de minimis provisions to avoid absurdities or over-regulation, to prevent the risk of labelling becoming too complex, and to take account of the technical constraints associated with the manufacture of foodstuffs.
The Council's common position paves the way for the Directive to enter into force, once it has been accepted by Parliament in a second reading, expected in early 2003. Member States then have one year to transpose the Directive after which a one-year transition period is granted to manufacturers in order to modify the labelling of their products.
If all goes according to plan, food manufacturers can expect to be brandishing the new labels by 2005. They have just a few years to absorb the additional labelling requirements and a brief transitional period to bring product labelling into line with the new provisions.