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European Commission report on consumer information on alcoholic beverages

Drinks industry invited to create self-regulatory proposal for nutrition & ingredients labelling on alcohol in Europe

By Rachel Arthur+

13-Mar-2017
Last updated on 13-Mar-2017 at 16:45 GMT2017-03-13T16:45:38Z

AB InBev says it is already 'going beyond' existing regulations
AB InBev says it is already 'going beyond' existing regulations

The European Commission is inviting the alcoholic beverage industry to develop a self-regulatory proposal that provides information on ingredients and nutrition on all alcoholic beverages. 

The Brewers of Europe, AB InBev and Comite Vins welcome the European Commission's report this morning, while spiritsEUROPE reiterates its commitment to provide consumers with relevant information. 

The EU Regulation of the provision of food information to consumers (1169/2011) sets down rules on listing ingredients and providing a nutritional declaration on foods. Alcoholic beverages at more than 1.2% ABV, however, are excluded.

But the beverage industry has already taken steps to include such information voluntarily. In March 2015, Heineken, Carlsberg, SABMiller and AB InBev backed a pledge from The Brewers of Europe – the trade association representing 5,000 breweries – to provide ingredient and nutritional information on beer voluntarily.

The European Commission has today adopted a long-awaited report on the mandatory labelling of ingredients and nutritional declaration for alcoholic beverages. It concludes that the industry should build on the work done so far and propose, within a year, ‘a harmonized approach aiming to provide consumers with information about the ingredients present in alcoholic beverages and the nutritional value of alcoholic beverages’.

The Commission will then assess the proposal.

However, BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, says that a voluntary initiative will not bridge the 'information gap' between alcohol and other drinks and says it is 'regrettable' that the report does not call for immediate mandatory nutrition and ingredients labelling.

But in contrast the UK's Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) has welcomed the decision not to force labelling regulations on alcoholic drinks at this stage.

Some member states already have their own measures on labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages.

The discussion will now turn to what the most appropriate methods for nutritional & ingredients labelling are, with options such as on-pack or online to be considered. The challenge will also be to create a harmonised system that all alcoholic drink sectors are happy with.

Brewers: ‘We encourage other sectors to follow our lead’

AB InBev

AB InBev welcomes the plan for the industry to develop a self-regulatory proposal.

As part of the pledge from The Brewers of Europe, it started providing consumers with nutritional/ingredients information in 2015.

It says: We have a responsibility to our consumers to clearly provide nutritional & ingredients information to help them make smart dietary & health choices”.

AB InBev has already pledged to provide consumers will full ingredient and nutritional information on 80% of its Europe volumes by the end of 2017.

This requires the design & production of new labels, beer cans & secondary packaging. In time, each bottle & can will carry information on ingredients & calories.”

Following the commitment made by The Brewers of Europe in March 2015, Europe’s brewers have been voluntarily rolling out ingredients listing and nutrition information, following the rules that apply to non-alcoholic drinks.

“We expect that by the end of 2017, over 60% of new beer volumes hitting the shelves across Europe will carry this information, on labels and also via online platforms, meeting the expectations and needs of today’s consumers,” says a statement from the organization today as it welcomed the Commission’s report.

“We also encourage other sectors to follow our lead in providing both ingredients and nutrition values according to the rules, as it is clear that consumers can only be empowered to take informed decisions on how different foods and beverages fit within their diet and lifestyle if there is a level playing field of comparable information.”

It points to the 100ml reference laid down in the existing EU Regulation for food and non-alcoholic drinks as “the robust standard for comparing the nutritional content of different drinks”.

Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, Secretary General of The Brewers of Europe, said, “When there are no standard portions for any alcoholic beverage across the EU, a solely portion-based scheme can never replace the 100ml reference.

“EU law in any case allows companies to add relevant portion size references, provided they are not misleading and are included alongside the 100ml reference.” 

Spirits: ‘The devil is in the detail’

spiritsEUROPE, the representative body for the spirits industry, has welcomed the publication of the report: the delay of which ‘has led to equal measures of frustration and speculation’.

BEUC wants mandatory rules

The European Consumer Organisation points out that the EC's report has been released 2 years past the deadline, and 'regrettably does not call for immediate action to make nutrition and ingredient labelling mandatory for all alcoholic drinks.'

Monique Goyens, director general, BEUC, said: “Today consumers know what is in a bottle of milk or fruit juice, but not in a bottle of whisky or beer. 

“We doubt that voluntary initiatives will bridge the unacceptable information gap between alcoholic & other drinks. Why wait a year to consider binding rules? They are the only way forward if we want all consumers across the EU to be equally informed about what their wine or vodka contains.

“We cannot see any reason why alcoholic beverages should get special treatment."

But one of its key concerns continues to be the prospect of providing calorie information per 100ml: a reference that it says could confuse consumers because the standard 30ml spirits serving would result in a large figure per 100ml.

Paul Skehan, director general, spiritsEUROPE, said, “We have already stated that we have no objection to providing consumers with relevant information. 

“The devil is in the details, of course. The amount, and type, of information given are key issues, as is the manner in which that information is provided.  While the average consumer may have an increased interest in the calories contained in their beverages of choice, we do not sense any significant increase in demand for knowledge about the ingredients contained in our products. 

“In addition, there is no value in showing calories per 100ml - such a reference would grossly misrepresent the calories present in an average glass, depending if consumers choose spirits, beer or wine. Showing the information per serving would allow for useful comparison, and facilitate informed choices.

“We are careful about the breadth of information that we already convey to consumers - not only the array of information that is required by EU and national legislation, but also the wealth of information we provide about responsible drinking. Adding more and more information is not necessarily useful, and may potentially confuse rather than educate.  A balance is needed.

“Finally, we believe the mechanism for providing the information should be best left to the producer:  while some may prefer to re-design labels to convey the material, others see more scope for information being provided using modern, digital means.”

Wine: harmonised system required

Comite Vins (CCEV) says it is fundamental that the system and means of communicating information to wine consumers is harmonised at European level.

Ignacio Sánchez Recarte, Secretary General of CEEV, said: "The challenge is on us, and we embrace the responsibility.

"We are committed to giving tailored and meaningful information to wine consumers and we will explore innovative developments in the area of food information in order to propose the best-adapted way to provide this meaningful information to wine consumers.”

It says that wine is one of the most regulated food products and has a detailed EU regulatory framework, covering definitions, oenological practices, manufacturing methods, presentation rules and labelling. "This very stringent set of rules and controls, which leads to a very high quality production and a protection against consumers’ deception, also allows for the proper functioning of the Internal Market."

Meanwhile, the UK's wine and spirits industry has welcomed the Commission's decision to refrain from mandatory labelling.

Miles Beale, WSTA chief executive, said: “We welcome the Commission’s decision not to force mandatory labelling on alcohol at this stage and instead have turned to industry to come forward with the most effective way to properly inform consumers, without space limitations, in this digital age.

The WSTA has offered alcohol calorie information on its website for two years, as have a number of brands and retailers.

"Trying to cram more information on product labels which have limited space is a backward step. We should not be using 20th Century methods on a 21st Century issue. People who want to know more about what they are drinking are very capable of going online and finding out for themselves.

"The alcohol industry has shown they are ahead of the game on nutrition information and have for some time provided consumers with off–label calorific content of drinks.” 

Highlights from the EC report: mandatory labelling of the list of ingredients and the nutritional declaration of alcoholic beverages

“Public health associations support mandatory labelling of ingredients and nutrition declaration as part of a comprehensive strategy to provide information and educate consumers about alcohol… consumers have the right to know the ingredients contained in the alcoholic beverages they drink," says the report.

“More importantly, nutrition information such as the energy content should be provided to allow consumers to monitor better their diets and facilitate a healthy lifestyle.

“The industry position on the matter has recently evolved significantly. Whereas in the past food business operators were opposed to any additional labelling requirement, today the majority of sectors acknowledge that consumers have the right to know about the content of their drinks and a number of concerted or independent voluntary initiatives are being developed and implemented by the actors of the different sectors to provide consumers with additional information.”

The Commission notes industry efforts to provide information to consumers to date. For example, the wine sector has launched a concerted action and provides, on a common website, information on calories per serve and per category of wine.

“It is too early to make any assessment of impact of recent voluntary initiatives,” says the Commission. “However, it can be expected that they may raise the interest of the consumers for a more systematic provision of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration.

“Producers of alcoholic beverages are generally of the view that any new requirements regarding labeling should apply equally to all types of alcoholic beverages.”

The Commission concludes: “Taking into account these recent developments [in voluntarily providing information], the Commission considers that as a first step, current voluntary initiatives should be allowed to develop further so as to provide list of ingredients and nutrition declaration. It therefore invites the industry to respond to consumers' expectations and present within a year of adoption of this report a self-regulatory proposal that would cover the entire sector of alcoholic beverages. The Commission will assess the industry's proposal.”

The report can be found in full here.

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