The UK's Food Standards Agency has launched a consultation on key principles governing labelling requirements of pre-packaged foods, which it intends to help the European Commission in its review.
The European Commission is presently in the midst of reviewing labelling requirements in order to simplify the rules and reduce the burden on industry - while at the same time maintaining a high level of consumer information and protection. A draft proposal to cover both general and nutritional labelling is expected by the end of this year.
The FSA said it sees developing a set of general and key principles as "important". It envisages them as a benchmark against which current and future food labelling requirements could be measured.
Labelling - particularly relating to nutritional information - has been a flashpoint of debate between industry and regulators.
In the absence of EU regulations, last summer the CIAA introduced voluntary GDA (guidance daily amount) values for energy, protein, total carbohydrates, total fat, saturated fat, fibre and sodium, which have been adopted by a number of major manufacturers.
The FSA's "traffic light" nutrient profiling model, which underpins recently introduced advertising restrictions for high sugar, salt and fat (HSSF) products aimed at children, has come in for heavy criticism as being unscientific.
Although the proposed principles are still at an early stage and are likely to develop over the coming months, the agency is seeking to stir debate amongst stakeholders - an approach that could give the industry a hand in shaping them.
So far, the FSA board has discussed general principles to underlie all labelling requirements (mandatory and voluntary). These are: appropriate labelling of food so that the consumer can make an informed purchasing decision; the presentation of accurate, legible and easy to understand information; and that labelling - be it pictorial or descriptive - should not mislead over product nature or quality.
Key principles relate to mandatory provision of information, which must be easily identifiable and not obscured by marketing or voluntary information; and information to be made available at point of purchase.
The FSA is asking stakeholders for their thoughts on the framework approach, and whether they agree with the principles identified in the areas of safety, key product identifiers, and nutrition.
It wants to know whether there are any other principles or filters that should be considered, and whether the requirements should be subject to filters on consumer demand and sustainability.
Moreover, under the Food Labelling Directive (2000/13/EC), labelling rules need not apply to loose or pre-packed foods for direct sale if the consumer receives sufficient information. In the UK, it is considered that such information may be obtained from the vendor or producer in person.
The agency's board has agreed to "maintain to status quo", but has asked for views on a best practice approach to off-label info for such products.