The FIC Regulation is due for renewal: How consumers can make healthy and sustainable food choicesPosted: April 21, 2023 | |
The ‘farm to fork’ strategy calls for better communication to consumers about healthy and sustainable foods. To make this happen, EU legislation on food information to consumers is currently being revised.
The revision of the FIC Regulation covers front-of-pack nutrition labeling, establishment of nutrient profiles, origin labeling and date marking (‘best before’ / ‘use by’). The revision as prompted by the ‘farm-to-table’ strategy further relates to the labeling of alcoholic beverages, as announced in the European Cancer Control Plan.
Need for change
Our daily nutritional intake in Europe is not in line with national and international dietary recommendations. This leads to diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, with all kinds of consequences. According to the European Commission, this is partly because current labeling rules do not provide sufficient guidance for consumers to choose healthy foods.
As part of the legislative process, the European Commission published a so-called ‘Impact Assessment‘ at the end of 2020. The Impact Assessment sets out the labeling rules that need adjustment, and the different options for amendment as proposed by the European Commission. The Impact Assessment for tightened regulations on alcoholic beverages labeling was published later, in the summer of 2021. Below we discuss which changes to the FIC Regulation are proposed in the Impact Assessments and why, and touch upon the options presented for each topic. Later this year, the European Commission will follow up with a proposal for an amended regulation.
Consumers do not always understand the nutritional information on packaging, which makes it difficult to choose healthy foods. To help consumers making better decisions, there are all kinds of voluntary initiatives for clear front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labeling. Examples include the much discussed Nutri-Score, but also other initiatives such as the traffic light system (UK), the keyhole (Scandinavia) and the battery (Italy). However, these diverse FOP logos do not necessarily help European consumers as they do not provide equal access to information. The European Commission is concerned that this could lead to fragmentation of the single market, costs for food companies operating in several member states, and confusion among consumers. Harmonizing FOP logos and making them mandatory or not, are options on the table.
Another proposed change concerns nutrition and health claims on unhealthy products. For example, consider the claim “source of fiber” for biscuits and “rich in vitamin C” for soft drinks. Such claims obscure the unhealthy profiles of these products, which leads to ‘health washing’ (term as introduced by the Dutch consumer association, see here). Nutrient profiles, i.e. thresholds for fats, sugars and/or salt above which the use of nutrition or health claims is restricted, could provide a solution to this. Such thresholds could help preventing consumer deception and create a level playing field for food companies. According to the Claims Regulation, nutrient profiles should already have been established as early as 2009, but this never materialized due to intense debate on the matter. The revision of the FIC Regulation revitalized this discussion. Based on stakeholder feedback on the Impact Assessment, the time seems ripe for change now.
There is a growing demand from consumers to know the origin of food products. This allows consumers to make more sustainable choices, such as by choosing local products. Origin labeling is already mandatory for certain types of meat, among others. In the absence of harmonized rules regarding other food categories, a number of member states developed national rules for this purpose. Rules differentiating from member state to member state however lead to unequal access to information within the EU and fragments the internal market. The European Commission is therefore investigating whether and, if so, how, European rules on origin labeling could be further extended. This could mean an expansion of the product groups for which origin indication is required. Current discussions also include the production phase to which the indication should refer and the area size referred to (EU / non-EU, or e.g. country or regional level).
We currently have two types of date marking. Whereas ‘use by’ refers to the expiry date for food safety reasons, ‘best before’ refers to the date by which the food retains its optimum quality. After this date, color variations may occur, for example, but the product is still safe to eat. The Impact Assessment states that less than one in two consumers understand the meaning of the two date markings. As a result, a lot of food ends up in the waste bin unnecessarily. By estimate 10% of the 88 million tons of food that is wasted annually is linked to date marking. In the context of improving sustainability by reducing food waste, the Impact Assessment presents options to educate consumers about date marking. It also suggests the possibility of removing the ‘best before’ quality date where this has little or no added value.
Health damage from alcohol is a serious public health issue in the EU. To reduce alcohol consumption, it is important to inform consumers about what is actually in alcoholic beverages, both in terms of ingredients and nutrients. Currently, this is not mandatory for alcoholic beverages with an alcohol volume above 1.2%. Having said that, there are various initiatives for better information provision on alcohol, such as self-regulation within the beer and spirits sectors. To create a level playing field for operators, the European Commission communicated among others a proposal to remove the aforementioned labeling exception for all alcoholic beverages. Some of the then required information could be communicated off-label via a QR code.
Interested parties were able to share feedback with the European Commission after the publication of the two Impact Assessments. To further prepare the legislative proposal, a public consultation took place from 13 December 2021 to 7 March 2022. This process was designed to gather further views, experiences and suggestions on food labeling from stakeholders. As many as 3224 citizens, companies, interest groups, public authorities and other parties filled out the questionnaire made available for this purpose. A large proportion of respondents expressed their support for a harmonized FOP logo, as well as for improved terminology or a visual presentation of date marking. The European Commission’s legislative proposal is expected later this year.
This blogpost has also been published in Dutch at VMT.nl. The author thanks Marie-Claire Evers for her translation of this blogpost into English.