Spirits are running high in the EU alcohol debate as the European alcoholic beverages sectors have come up with a self-regulatory, voluntary proposal on the list of ingredients and nutrition information and have submitted this draft to the European Commission for consideration. Currently, there is no EU legal obligation in place for alcoholic drinks above 1.2 percent (ABV) to show nutritional and ingredients information. This means that some alcoholic drinks are sold without on-label reference to aspects like sugar content, which is different to regulations for soft drinks, for instance.
This doesn’t fit in with modern day consumer expectations about what nutritional information and ingredient details should be provided on the label of products.
This is why representatives from Europe’s leading alcohol associations in the wine, spirits, cider and beer sectors have been working to develop a self-regulatory and voluntary solution which addresses such consumer expectations and improves transparency.
The sectors’ objective is to improve consumer knowledge about these products and to empower them to make informed decisions about the products that they choose to consume, they say, although this does not go far enough for the likes of the European Consumer Organization (BEUC) which has criticized the proposals.
The organization is accusing the EU alcohol sector of having labeling privileges.
One of the main points of controversy is about where to place such important information i.e. on the label itself or to refer the consumer online to search for listed information.
The main points of the principles drawn up by the European alcoholic beverages sector are:
- The nutritional information and the list of ingredients of products will be provided in tailor-made and meaningful ways.
- The nutritional information and the list of ingredients will be given to consumers off-label and/or on the label itself.
- Off-label information will be easily accessible on the label itself.
- Traditional and/or innovative tools will be used and comprehensive modern information systems could be developed.
- Food business operators responsible for food information will decide how to display the information.
Alcoholic drinks escape mandatory labeling rules
The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) says that alcohol makers are failing to meet consumers’ expectations for on-label information, pointing out that important information, such as the amount of sugar in alcoholic drinks will still escape mandatory labeling rules which apply to all soft drinks.
The BEUC’s stance is that the proposal allows beer, wine and spirits manufacturers to choose between on-label and online information, the latter being a “no-go from the consumer perspective.”
It says that these plans are the industry’s reaction to a European Commission deadline to improve the nutrition and ingredients labeling of alcoholic products, but BEUC representatives are disappointed with the conclusion of the alcohol industry proposals.
For BEUC, it is unacceptable that the nutrition information and ingredients list of alcoholic beverages remain optional whereas they are mandatory on all soft drinks such as fruit juice and sodas.
BEUC calls again on the EU for binding rules and to end the alcohol sector’s labeling privileges.
“The industry is granting itself too much flexibility to decide how much information consumers can see. As consumers make shopping decisions in a matter of seconds, it is unrealistic to expect they will take a few minutes to check online how calorific wine or vodka is,” says Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC.
“Let’s not forget that in most countries more than three out 10 consumers do not own a smartphone, not to mention that the signal can be very weak in some places. So on-label information is the best way to reach consumers equally. Even if consumers own a smartphone, manufacturers should make their lives easy and enable them to compare drinks in the blink of an eye.”
“Alcoholic beverages can be calorie bombs, as a glass of wine can contain as many calories as an ice cream. To make healthier choices and know at a glance what an alcoholic drink contains, consumers need the information on the bottle, not screen swipes away.”
“Last year the Commission rightly acknowledged the need to boost alcohol information to consumers. It is good news that some sectors such as beer makers are open to transparency, but this is not enough to ensure seamless information for consumers. For all alcohol makers to label information systematically and in a consumer-friendly way, the only solution we see are EU-wide mandatory rules.”
The Brewers of Europe
The Brewers of Europe has endorsed a joint framework with other alcoholic beverage sectors to voluntarily list ingredients and nutrition information and, through the Beer Annex to the framework, reiterated brewers’ long-standing commitment to transparency in this area.
In a statement, the organization says that in 2015, it committed to voluntarily listing ingredients and nutrition information, in full conformity with EU legislation, with the European Commission, other policymakers and consumer and public health NGOs welcoming the commitment.
It also points to a 2016 survey of more than 9,000 adults across nine countries which showed that 86 percent of Europeans believe alcoholic beverages should list ingredients just like other drinks, and show nutrition information per 100ml, the legal reference volume set for alcoholic beverages and already used by consumers for comparing all other drinks.
The survey also revealed that two-thirds of Europeans would use differing online sources to access ingredients and nutrition information for alcoholic beverages, with 70 percent saying that they would use the label as a key source of information.
According to the Brewers of Europe, 70 percent of beers today in the EU list ingredients on the label, while an estimated 40 percent of the beers are already labeling calories, in full conformity with the EU laws and complemented by information on digital platforms, often including the full nutrition declaration.
The brewing sector believes that there is no justification for a consumer receiving comparable information on the ingredients list or energy content of a non-alcoholic beverage, but then having no access to the equivalent information for an alcoholic beverage above 1.2 percent ABV.
“We welcome the step forward by the other alcoholic beverage sectors to join the Brewers in a common framework agreement to list ingredients and nutrition information. Europe’s brewing sector has played an instrumental role in pushing for a self-regulatory framework that removes the anomaly of the general exemption for alcoholic beverages from the obligation to list ingredients and energy values,” said Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, Secretary General of The Brewers of Europe.
“I am pleased to see that the other alcoholic beverage sectors are now going to be joining the brewers on this journey. In full transparency we now expect our actions to be monitored and to all be judged on implementation.”