Plans by the Department of Health to introduce universal hybrid labelling on food could be torpedoed by Brussels over concerns the scheme might contravene EU free trade rules.
German MEP Renate Sommer has written to the European Commission to call for infringement proceedings against the UK if it goes ahead with its plans for foods to carry front-of-pack labels combining guideline daily amounts, traffic-light colours and the descriptors ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’.
The scheme is voluntary and all major retailers have signed up to it. However, Sommer believes they only did so as a result of “immense pressure” from the Department of Health and the scheme therefore constitutes a “de facto national labelling system”, which she says is against EU rules.
“The food sector is a European one and having a national system is absolutely against the internal market,” said Sommer, an influential EU voice on food labelling. “It will cause massive problems for exporters because they will have to introduce different packaging if they want to sell to the UK.”
Hybrid labelling has been criticised by a number of UK supplier organisations and was also initially opposed by many retailers. However, a spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said it was wrong to suggest retailers had been forced into the scheme.
“It’s definitely not a question of the government compelling or pushing retailers in that direction,” he said.
One supplier-side source believed Sommer was “barking up the wrong tree” by writing to the EC. “I can’t imagine the UK government would go ahead without having consulted the Commission,” he added.
Sommer said she was prepared to believe there had been contact between the UK and the EC, but insisted that did not make the UK plans any less problematic. Having spoken to a number of food producers as well as a German retailer operating in the UK - which Sommer declined to name - she said all were worried about the new hybrid system.
Sommer submitted her question on the UK’s plans on 15 November and the EC is due to respond within six weeks. The reply is likely to come from the EC’s health directorate-general, DG Sanco, but Sommer stated she would pursue her concerns with DG Enterprise & Industry if no action was deemed to be necessary.