BRUSSELS: European Union health watchdogs are demanding that member nations adopt a stricter food labelling system, in an effort to tackle the growing problem of obesity among the EU's 500 million consumers.
EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou believes clear labelling is vital to help consumers make "balanced dietary choices".
He has proposed simplified labels on pre-packed foods, highlighting fat, sugar and salt contents. The information, which would also indicate the percentage of advisable daily intake, must be clear enough for consumers to make quick decisions.
In addition, other information could be included voluntarily on the reverse of product packs.
Moreover, individual governments would be free to develop their own national schemes provided these did not undermine EU rules.
Kyprianou is also proposing an extension of mandatory information on allergenic ingredients in food sold in restaurants and similar establishments.
The proposals, which have to be ratified by the European Parliament, have provoked dismay among food manufacturers who had hoped self-regulation would be an acceptable alternative to legislation.
The alcohol industry, however, has had a stay of execution. Beer, wine and spirits have been exempted from the new rules, apart from alcopops, which mix fruit juice and soft drinks with alcohol. They are included partly because they target teenage consumers.
Kyprianou maintains it will take another five years to produce a report on how the alcohol industry should regulate its labelling.
He adds: "The principle is there, but more work needs to be done. We will come back to this."
In the UK, consumer lobbyists have criticised the EU for not adopting the British 'traffic lights' system. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the nation's food retailers and manufacturers are still divided over its domestic adoption.
Complains Sue Davies, chief policy adviser to the Which? consumer group: "These recommendations are incredibly disappointing for consumers across Europe. Independent research shows that traffic lights are the best way to help busy shoppers identify healthy choices quickly and easily.
"These proposals have ignored what works best for consumers and opted for what works best for some sections of the food industry."
Data sourced from Financial Times Online; additional content by WARC staff