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Spirits industry hails self-regulatory labelling proposal

The European Commission has published a report inviting the drinks industry to propose self-regulatory measures with regards to listing nutritional information and ingredients.

The report on the implementation of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation regarding alcoholic beverages was published today (13 March), and invites the alcoholic beverages industry to develop a self-regulatory proposal within a year.

The paper, which was was scheduled to be published in mid-December 2014, has been the topic of heated debates between industry supporters and critics.

“We welcome this overdue report,” said Paul Skehan, director general of Spirits Europe. “The delay in its publication has led to equal measures of frustration and speculation. Now, with the release of the report, we have clarity from the Commission as to its preferred future orientation.

Of the proposal, Skehan said “the devil is in the details”, citing the amount and type of information, and the manner in which information is provided, as key issues.

“We are careful about the breadth of information that we already convey to consumers – not only the array of information that is required by EU and national legislation, but also the wealth of information we provide about responsible drinking.

“Adding more and more information is not necessarily useful, and may potentially confuse rather than educate. A balance is needed.”

Spirits Europe has not seen any significant increase in demand for knowledge about the ingredients, Skehan added, but outlines growing interest in calorie information.

This is best presented per serving, he said, to allow for useful comparison and facilitate informed choices. “There is no value in showing calories per 100ml – such a reference would grossly misrepresent the calories present in an average glass, depending if consumers choose spirits, beer or wine. It would also confuse and potentially contradict our messages related to moderate drinking.“

Skehan concluded that the method for providing the information should be left to each individual producer.

“While some may prefer to re-design labels to convey the material, others see more scope for information being provided using modern, digital means. Why prescribe labels, when more comprehensive and more flexible online media are evolving and improving day by day?“

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) said the proposal “recognises the industry’s commitment to voluntary initiatives in this area”, adding that providing calorie information to consumers “must be done in a meaningful way”.

“We believe that Scotch whisky should be consumed in a responsible manner, as part of a balanced diet,” said Julie Hesketh-Laird, SWA acting chief executive. “It is right that consumers have the information they need to make choices that fit with a healthy lifestyle, including calorie intake.

“The Scotch whisky industry is therefore happy to provide meaningful information in a format that is simple to understand and linked with actual serving sizes, supporting consumer choice.”

Trade body the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) also backed the Commission’s decision to ask the drinks industry to develop a self-regulatory proposal, and not “force” any further “mandatory” labelling measures through law.

WSTA chief executive, Miles Beale, said the alcohol industry has already demonstrated that it is “ahead of the game” in providing off-label nutritional information.

“We welcome the Commission’s decision not to force mandatory labelling on alcohol at this stage, and instead have turned to industry to come forward with the most effective way to properly inform consumers, without space limitations, in this digital age,” he said.

“The WSTA has offered alcohol calorie information on its website for two years, as have a number of drinks companies and retailers who all took voluntary action to help consumers find out more about their favourite drinks.

“Trying to cram more information on product labels which have limited space is a backward step. We should not be using 20th Century methods on a 21st Century issue. People who want to know more about what they are drinking are very capable of going online and finding out for themselves. The alcohol industry has shown they are ahead of the game on nutrition information and have for some time provided consumers with off–label calorific content of drinks.”

By law, alcoholic beverages sold in the EU must include the name of the product, its abv, place of origin, and name and address of the European manufacturer or importer on their labels.

European Parliament adopted a compromise on the Council on its Provision of Food Information to Consumers Regulation in 2011, which made alcoholic beverages exempt from an obligation to list all ingredients, nutritional information and calories.

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