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France considers ‘traffic light’ labelling as UK MEP hits back at EU threat of court case

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn+

24-Jun-2014
Last updated on 24-Jun-2014 at 14:01 GMT

French health minister proposes new preventative public health law, which could see the country adopting a similar nutrition labelling system to the UK's 'traffic light' scheme.
French health minister proposes new preventative public health law, which could see the country adopting a similar nutrition labelling system to the UK's 'traffic light' scheme.

France's health minister has put forward plans for the country’s own ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling system; meanwhile a UK Member of the European Parliament (MEP) has defended the UK’s debated colour-coded system against the threat of a “spurious legal case” that could be instigated by the Commission.

The French food industry could have its own colour coded nutrition labelling system to contend with as part of French health minister Marisol Touraine’s proposal for a new public health law which holds simplification, innovation and prevention as key axes. The text will be presented to the French Council of Ministers in September, and will be debated in parliament from the beginning of 2015.

Last week the European Commission told FoodNavigator it was investigating whether the UK’s existing ‘traffic light’ front-of-pack labelling was compatible with EU law . If it was found lacking, an infringement procedure, referral to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and possible fines could follow, it said.

Responding to the development, Glenis Willmott, health spokesperson for UK Labour MEPs, said: “I strongly condemn attempts to stop the traffic light scheme through a spurious legal case.”

“The EU legislation is clear that individual countries can implement voluntary labelling schemes, which is exactly what is happening in the UK. Whilst a lot of retailers and some producers have signed up, nobody is forced to. Similar schemes exist in other EU member states, such as the keyhole scheme used in Nordic countries,” Willmott said.

French proposals

The French minister claims the new bill will be the first in France to recognise disease prevention as a basic tool in public health policy. Discussing the proposals, Touraine described what she called the preservation of "health capital".

According to reports from French national Le Monde, the packaging will be colour coded in a similar way to the UK system illustrating sugar, fat, salt and calorie content of foods but using a five-colour code - green, yellow, orange, fuchsia and red - as opposed to the UK's traffic-light three.  

A petition by medical organisations and consumer groups in support of improved food labelling already has over 22,000 signatures, the newspaper reported.

An ongoing story for the UK and the EU

The UK already has its own voluntary so called ‘traffic light’ nutrition labelling system – which ranks sugars, fat, saturated fatty acids and salt by colour – red, green or amber – depending on content levels. This is in addition to Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) information, which has been mandatory across the EU since 2010 after the the European Parliament voted against pan-EU implementation of a traffic light system.

Traffic lights have sparked opposition from those who feel the system fragments EU standards at a time when efforts are being made to harmonise EU law, while others argue it is discriminatory and overly simplistic in its classification of multi-component foods.

The Commission’s latest investigation follows several complaints from European companies expressing concerns over the impact of the system.

Responding, Willmott said: “After heavy industry lobbying defeated my proposals for EU-wide traffic light labelling, some in the industry are now trying to stop a perfectly legitimate national scheme.”

She added: “The easiest and most effective way to implement the traffic light scheme with legal certainty would be through EU legislation, and I think this is something we could still achieve in the future.”

“Consumers like the traffic light scheme because it gives them the information they need to make quick, informed decisions. If we’re serious about tackling obesity and related diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, then we need to be transparent about what is in our food."

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