As the EC points out, there are at present 25 national laws plus two EU directives designed to ensure that consumers can rely on the weight indications on all packed products, but often these national laws vary. This can lead to increased costs for producers of packaging and labelling, and consumers are often faced with different labelling on packages.
Taking up a recommendation of the SLIM exercise (Simpler Legislation for the Internal Market), the Commission is aiming to streamline the various existing laws into a single directive, while at the same time sweeping away some 25 different national rules in this area and reducing costs and regulatory headaches for manufacturers.
In order to prepare the new directive, the Commission has launched a public consultation to solicit the views of producers and citizens on its plans for simplifying current legislation and aligning it with the international standards formulated by the OIML (Organisation Internationale de Métrologie Légale).
"This initiative will improve consumer protection while making life easier for producers. With tests and interpretations of the law being the same in all Member States, manufacturers can look forward to significant cost reductions," said European Commissioner Günter Verheugen.
"With EU rules aligned to international standards, they will be able to market their products anywhere in the world without needing to re-label them."
Food labelling is a contentious issue in Europe. In November 2004, the EC confronted the food industry with new rules on food allergen ingredients. Food manufacturers now have to list all sub-ingredients of compound ingredients, which means that allergens cannot be 'hidden', heralding an end to the 20 year-old 25 per cent rule with all ingredients labelled, regardless of the quantity contained in the finished food.
Providing justification for the new directive, a panel at the European Food Safety Authority claimed there is ample evidence to justify the mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives: cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soy, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.
The aim of the latest public consultation is to meet consumer concerns and to enumerate costs and benefits for manufacturing and retailing. It covers an extremely diverse variety of consumer products, seeking reactions from consumers, retailers and manufacturers on how information on contents can be made more easily identifiable.
For example, do consumers prefer to see an indication of the number sweeteners in a package rather than the content in grams Do the contents of a box of chocolates include the wrappings of the individual pieces of chocolate in the box? Is water included in the contents indication for frozen meals? How should products like cheese in oil be indicated i.e. as drained weight and a separate indication of the liquid medium?
Legislation would also contain provisions to guarantee the correct filling of packages, e.g. batches, manual filling, differently sized product filling as well as labelling requirements. Whether or not to harmonise the differences in conformity assessment and enforcement is also included.
Consumers, retailers and manufactures are invited to give their views and to fill in an online survey until 15 March. The results of the consultation will be available during the first half of 2005.