EU approves food labeling rules

In This Section

September 2011

New food-labeling regulations are in place in the European Union after the European Parliament (EP) approved rules aimed at helping consumers make “better informed, healthier [sic] choices.”

According to a July 6, 2011, news release, the new regulations will require labels “to spell out a food’s energy content as well as fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein, and salt levels, in a way that makes them easy for consumers to read.” To this end, such nutritional information must be presented “in a legible tabular form on the packaging, together and in the same field of vision,” and “expressed per 100 g or per 100 mL,” with the option of expressing values per portion.

Once the legislation is published in the EU Official Journal, food companies will have three years to conform to most of the rules. They will have five years to abide by the rules on nutrition values.

The new regulations also mandate allergen labeling for both prepackaged products and nonpackaged foods sold in restaurants or canteens and extend existing country-of-origin labeling laws to fresh meat from pigs, sheep, goats, and poultry. Further, they state that consumers cannot be “misled by the appearance, description, or pictorial presentation of food packaging.” In addition, meat and fish consisting of combined meat parts or fish parts must now be labeled “formed meat” or “formed fish,” accordingly.

The regulations cover “imitation foods,” which the EP defines as “foods that look similar to other foods but are made of different ingredients, such as ‘cheese-like’ foods made with vegetable products.” Manufacturers of such products will be required to state clearly on the front of the pack “in a prominent font size” next to the brand name that an ingredient “that would normally be expected has been replaced.”


A 20-year struggle among international food safety bodies ended in July 2011 when the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) met in Geneva, Switzerland. At the meeting, regulators approved food-labeling guidance that will allow countries to label genetically modified foods without risking a legal challenge from the World Trade Organization. This is because national measures based on Codex guidance or standards cannot be challenged as a barrier to trade.

<p">CAC was created in 1963 by two agencies of the United Nations—the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization—and develops international food standards, guidelines, and related texts.

A sign that the decades-long debate over the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients was perhaps ending came in May when the Codex Committee on Food Labeling (CCFL) agreed to discontinue its work on definitions related to genetically modified organisms (GMO). Instead, CCFL agreed to develop a compilation of Codex texts relevant to the labeling of foods derived from modern biotechnology.

The contentious issue saw the CCFL divided between countries proposing process-based GMO labeling and those proposing that GMO should be declared on the label only when they are present in the final product.

The United States has traditionally been opposed to the labeling of GM food, arguing that GM food products on the market have been tested and are safe. Consumers International, an advocacy group based in London, called the change in the US position, by allowing the labeling work to move forward, a “striking reversal,” but the Obama administration reportedly disputed that description, saying it remains opposed to mandatory labeling.

“The adopted text confirms that Codex labeling texts developed for foods generally also apply to foods derived from modern biotechnology,” an administration official told “This adopted text clarifies that foods derived from modern biotechnology are not necessarily different from other foods simply due to their method of production.”


The overarching issue of nutrition labeling is the focus of a new report from the European Food Information Council (EUFIC; Brussels, Belgium).

The 86-page “Global Update on Nutrition Labeling” examines the global labeling situation and highlights trends and gaps in knowledge. (For an executive summary of the report, visit [pdf].)

The EUFIC report stresses the need for further research to see whether consumers make more healthful food choices over time because of nutrition information placed on food packaging.

“Some research has shown that consumers understand and know how to use accurately various nutrition labels should they choose to do so, but little is known about whether consumers habitually make [more healthful] purchases as a result,” said the report.

The report also calls for standardized front-of-pack (FOP) labels: “The prevailing view in countries with mandatory and voluntary labeling alike is that standardized labels are preferable to a multitude of different nutrition labels. There remains broad disagreement, however, on what format is most effective at influencing consumer behavior.” The debate over which nutrition labeling format is most effective “will certainly continue in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and the United States for the foreseeable future.” 

Various labeling schemes can be equally effective in helping consumers identify healthful options, according to research by EUFIC and the Australian Heart Foundation, “yet many groups discussed in this report assert that standardized nutrition labels are imperative,” it said.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration announced in 2009 its intention to unify a FOP labeling system through new regulation and reduce consumer confusion. The agency also drafted a letter to industry to serve as guidance regarding point-of-purchase food labeling and, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commissioned the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to review FOP nutrition rating systems and symbols. The IOM report is expected in 2011.