The European Commission proposed simplified food labels Wednesday highlighting fat, sugar and salt contents in an attempt to contain the spread of obesity and junk food in the 27-nation EU.
Under the proposals, six content elements will have to appear on packages: energy, total fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar and salts.
The labels, which must be clear enough so consumers can make quick decisions, will also indicate what percentage of advisable daily intake they represent.
"Consumers have to be able to make the right choice. They need the right information to plan their diet," EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said. "The ultimate target is a healthy nutrition."
Parliament takes up issue
The proposals exclude beer, wine and spirits, even though they can have a dramatic impact on health. Kyprianou said it would take another five years to produce a report on how the alcohol industry should regulate its labeling.
So-called alcopops, which mix fruit juice and soft drinks with alcohol, are included partly because they target the key market of teenage consumers.
The proposals will now be taken up by the European Parliament and must win approval from member nations before they can be turned into law.
All packaged foodstuffs from outside the European Union would have to meet the labeling criteria. In the U.S., food labels list serving size, calories and nutrient information, including fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and protein content.
Current labeling systems in the EU, some going back 30 years, are considered too perplexing or downright illegible for the consumer. Essential information on how to have a healthier diet often gets lost among the clutter of information.
"Confusing, overloaded or misleading labels can be more of a hindrance than a help to the consumer," said Kyprianou.
Food giants wanted more voluntary commitments and less mandatory information on the front of packages while consumer groups wanted the EU to go further in specifying content. "There will be some criticism from both sides," Kyprianou said.
A need for simple information
The CIAA food and drinks industry association immediately rejected the proposals as unmanageable and confusing.
It said in a statement that by putting six elements on the front of packs, it "completely ignores the need of consumers for simple information."
The CIAA is in the process of introducing a voluntary scheme of ingredient labeling and said that by 2010 the major food producers will apply it.
The EU's BEUC consumer protection group said it wanted more nutrients included on the front of the pack and color coding to highlight levels of safety.
"Some improvements are clearly needed," BEUC Director General Monique Goyens said.
Key to Kyprianou's proposals are measures to increase the health of European consumers. He has warned that more than half of all adults in the bloc are overweight or obese, and estimated that some 22 million children are overweight.
Bad diets based on fatty and sweet ingredients combined with physical laziness account for six of the seven top factors leading to bad health among the EU's 495 million citizens. At least with better labeling, consumers will be able to better plan their diets, Kyprianou said.