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Food Labelling in France: Trial of Colour-coded Nutrition Labels; Comparison with UK and at EU Level

It is reported that the French health ministry has recently begun a trial of four different colour-coded labelling systems on food packaging in a bid to curb obesity.

Colour-coded labelling is a polarising subject. Proponents state that it makes complex nutritional information more digestible for consumers, but parts of the food industry and some Mediterranean countries oppose it as they say it is too simplistic and fear that it will adversely affect sales of their products (such as, for example, Italian olive oil) and thus hinder or impede trade between EU Member States.

France: The four colour-coded labelling systems that the French health ministry researchers are testing are as follows:

  1. So-called “traffic light labels” (identical to the UK system, see below) which colour code foods according to their fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar content with red for high, orange for medium and green for low.
  2. Colour-coded labels - which are even easier for a consumer to understand - designed by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
  3. Labels preferred by French retailers: a less intuitive – and critics have observed “not totally logical” - colour scale running from green, to blue, amber and purple.
  4. A label that contains no colour variation put forward by food industry groups.

The French government is aiming to come up with a logo that will allow consumers to easily understand the nutritional values of a product. This action follows up on a healthcare reform package passed by the government in December 2015 that included a commitment to encourage healthier diets.

UK experience: In 2013, the UK introduced a “traffic light” labelling scheme – a voluntary front-of-pack labelling system - which colour codes foods on fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar content per 100 g or 100 ml with red for high, orange for medium and green for low. Again, the aim was to assist in fighting obesity by encouraging consumers to choose foods with more green lights and keep red-labelled foods as occasional treats. Supporters advocate it as a simple guide to encouraging healthy nutrition choices, while once again critics say it is over-simplistic and could detract from attempts to harmonise food law in the EU.

Action at EU level: Regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers indicates that Member States may recommend additional food labelling schemes on a voluntary basis, subject to a number of conditions, including the requirement that they must not create obstacles to the free movement of goods.

In 2014, the Commission sent a “letter of formal notice” to the UK seeking the reasoning behind their “traffic-light” labelling scheme. The UK replied to the letter, but no further action has yet been taken.

The Commission is now being placed under pressure by both the European Parliament and some Member States with regard to this issue. In August 2016, 91 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) asked the Commission to conduct an impact assessment of the UK’s scheme, referring to a study showing that sales of Italian ham and cheese were falling in UK supermarkets.

In its response to the MEPs’ question, the Commission has indicated that the UK legislation is still under examination. The Commission also confirmed that it aims to ensure that the development of these labelling schemes is compatible with the internal market rules, and would prevent unnecessary market fragmentation. It seems unlikely, however, that the Commission will take further action against the UK in this regard in light of the UK’s impending departure from the EU.

Certain Member States have also indicated their opposition to the UK’s “traffic light” labels. At a Council meeting in March 2016, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain called on the Commission to indicate what action it would pursue.

A clear indication of the Commission’s intentions will be revealed in just over a year’s time. In accordance with Article 35 of Regulation 1169/2011, the Commission must by 13 December 2017 submit a report to the European Parliament and the Council on the use of additional forms of expression and presentation (such as, for instance, these “traffic light” labelling schemes), on their effect on the internal market and on whether it is advisable to further harmonise such schemes.

For the purposes of the Commission’s report, the Member States must provide the Commission with relevant information concerning the use of such additional forms of expression or presentation on the market in their territory. Both the UK and France at least will be in a position to provide the Commission with such information. Whether the Commission will at that time propose further harmonisation of these schemes remains to be seen.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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