In March 2017, the European Commission published a report evaluating the merits of mandatory nutritional and ingredient labelling for alcoholic beverages (the Report), which concluded that there are no objective grounds justifying the absence of nutrition or ingredient information for alcoholic beverages.
Following publication of the Report, the European Alcoholic Beverages Sector (EABS) representing the wine, beer, spirits and cider sector was invited to respond to 'consumers' expectations' and to present a self-regulatory proposal to the Commission. In March 2018, EABS submitted a self-regulatory proposal that also contained separate annexes highlighting the specific concerns and standpoints of each sector representative (the Proposal). The crux of the EABS proposal was to advocate a flexible self-regulatory approach based on which the nutritional information and the ingredients lists may either be provided on product labels or online, depending on the discretion of the individual business operator.
How the drink industry measures up on mandatory labelling
It is noted that whilst the Proposal sets forth a unified industry approach on the need for flexibility as to the means by which labelling information is presented, there is a lack of consensus between the component trade associations within EABS as to the appropriate methodology when presenting labelling information. These differencing perspectives were helpfully presented in separate annexes to the Proposal. For instance, the Brewers of Europe has been highly vocal in advocating a common position that mandates nutrition and ingredients listings per 100ml. This differs to the position advocated by the spirits industry that underlines the practical and consumer health imperative on ensuring a per-serving (30ml) labelling approach for spirits. Indeed, stakeholders within the spirits industry have questioned whether a rigid adherence to the labelling modalities set out in the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (as amended) (FIC) can be usefully applied to the drinks sector. There are two compelling and practical reasons for maintaining a per serving size approach: (i) firstly, imposing a harmonised labelling obligation by reference to 100ml reference values would present a consumer health risk and would directly conflict with the efforts made by the spirit drinks industry to educate consumers on moderate drinking; and (ii) secondly, reference to calories per 100ml would also be misleading from a nutritional perspective. For instance, according to information provided by SpiritsEurope, a drink of spirits could show up as some 240 calories per 100 ml, while a beer would only have about 40 calories.
The Commission is currently assessing the Proposal and if it considers it insufficient or unsatisfactory, it will launch an impact assessment on possible regulatory and non-regulatory intervention. Whilst we await the Commission's assessment of the Proposal, there is an emerging consensus that the Commission is leaning towards regulatory intervention that will impose mandatory nutritional and ingredients labelling for alcoholic beverages. From a regulators perspective, there is a delicate balance to strike between introducing a regulatory burden that on the one hand imposes a consistent obligation upon all producers to provide intelligible and practical information whilst also ensuring that labelling requirements are sufficiently flexible to distinguish between differing product strengths and formulations. The demarcation between spirits and beer and cider products is a striking example of this challenge. It remains to be seen how the Commission will interpret this distinction.
The drinks industry has emphasised its commitment to ensuring that consumers are provided with meaningful product information to facilitate more informed choices. The Proposal does this by presenting a creative and flexible approach that embraces the potential application of Smart technology as a vehicle for providing nutrition and ingredient labelling for alcoholic beverages.
As a final thought, it is recalled that the Commission declared in its 2010 mission statement for 'A Digital Agenda for Europe' that "consumers expect, rightly, that they can access content online at least as effectively as in the offline world". In light of the increasing ubiquity and accessibility of online content, it is suggested that the Proposal provides the Commission with a creative and practical option that overcomes the limitations of on-label information and addresses consumer demand by facilitating enhanced product labelling information through more meaningful off-label channels.
You can download the full market commentary, Message in a bottle: is it last orders for EU alcohol labelling exemptions? here.