Food for thought: the top industry trends affecting food and drink labelling in the EU

Written on 12 Aug 2019

The EU governments are facing increasing pressure to further regulate the claims made on food and drinks products. Businesses, particularly those businesses looking to expand into Europe, need to be aware of some of the issues that could have an impact on their product claims and label designs. Particular hot topics include the labelling of gluten-free, the challenges of communicating sugar reduction and potential changes to alcohol labelling.

If businesses fail to take into account of these issues when designing their products and making claims, they risk both reputational damage and enforcement as regulators are concerned about misleading and incorrect claims on labels and in advertising

The do’s and don’ts on Gluten Free foods

Statistics reveal that the UK free-from market alone has grown by 133% over 2013-18, with an estimated value of £837 million in 2018, and this market is continuing to expand across the EU. Gluten-free products make up a large proportion of that total, as more consumers choose to avoid gluten because of health reasons, intolerances or allergies. Manufacturers of gluten-free products must ensure their labelling meets the legal requirements. European law dictates that manufacturers can only make gluten-free claims at the level of 20 parts per million or less. Any failure to meet this standard could be picked up by regulators such as the UK's Trading Standards and these companies could face a criminal prosecution and an unlimited fine. In reality, most cases of this nature are resolved through discussion, but one caveat to this would be where the mislabelling compromises the safety of the product with the potential to cause an injury or fatal reaction. This would more likely lead to a prosecution.

The challenge of communicating sugar reformulation

Public Health England (PHE) has asked food manufacturers to reformulate many of their products to reduce sugar. Those who are tackling the problem are keen to communicate their reformulation efforts to consumers. They must be careful though, as claims on food packaging about specific nutrients are highly regulated by the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR), which sets out strict rules on claims of “low sugar”, "sugar-free" and "no added sugar". Any companies claiming "reduced" or "light" nutrients must prove that their product has 30% less than a comparable product, which can be technically very challenging for certain categories, for example breakfast cereals.

Since reformulation is an industry-wide initiative, it is likely that competitor's products are also being reformulated, which can make it difficult to find a product on the market which does have sufficient sugar to enable the use of a "reduced" or "light" claim. Another option is to compare a new version of a product against the original version but this can be a challenging message to convey to consumers who are loyal to the original version of the product.

Looking ahead to the future of alcohol labelling

The alcohol industry also faces significant change, with the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) warning that consumers do not understand the high levels of calories, sugar and carbohydrates in alcoholic drinks. Concerns around health and rising levels of obesity are also a driving force at an EU level. Unlike other food and drink products, there is no mandatory requirement for alcoholic beverages to include a list of ingredients or nutritional information. However, the European Commission has asked the alcoholic beverage industry to submit proposals on voluntary labelling.

The industry has decided to negotiate with the EU on a category basis. So far, SpiritsEUROPE has agreed a memorandum of understanding with the EU which commits its signatories to including calorie labelling on-pack and ingredient information online for two-thirds of spirits on the EU market by 2022. The memorandum of understanding is a voluntary initiative agreed by industry with the EU. However, most of the major spirits manufacturers have agreed to sign the memorandum and it is therefore expected that most industry players will shift to providing this information on a voluntary basis in an effort to avoid new regulation in this area. Similar arrangements are anticipated for other alcoholic drinks categories and some beer manufacturers have already publicly committed to on-pack calorie labelling in anticipation of this.

In the meantime, several stakeholders in non-spirits categories are taking steps voluntarily to include ingredient information and some EU Member States are adopting their own national laws. This raises concerns that this could lead to an inconsistent set of rules for alcoholic labelling across Europe. For now, manufacturers should look out for the European Commission’s response to the proposals from the other categories, which will determine the course of events and how industry is going to have to adapt its labelling.