Green light for self-regulation of the drinks industry | In Principle

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Green light for self-regulation of the drinks industry

In March 2017 the European Commission published a report on labelling of alcoholic beverages. It seems the exemption allowing alcohol producers to avoid placement of information on the ingredients and nutritional value of their drinks is drawing to an end. The beer, wine and spirits industry has 12 months to propose solutions to the Commission reflecting the specific nature of alcoholic beverages but also ensuring effective protection of consumers throughout the European Union.

Do tipplers have a right to know what they’re tippling?

The current regulations on labelling of alcoholic beverages are liberal. The EU’s Food Information for Consumers Regulation (1169/2011) provides that if a beverage contains more than 1.2% alcohol, the producer is not required to list the ingredients on the label or provide information on the energy value of the product. The only requirement now is that allergens must be identified. But according to the Commission’s report, aware consumers more and more often expect detailed information also in relation to alcoholic beverages. Moreover, because of the health impacts of alcohol, these expectations can be even stronger than in the case of other foods.

It appears that due to growing consumer expectations, the secrecy surrounding the ingredients of beer, wine and spirits will soon be a thing of the past. Some producers are already voluntarily stating the ingredients or energy value of their products. In that case, the list of ingredients must comply with the rules of Regulation 1169/2011 governing the order of listing, names of ingredients, and their technological functions. This type of voluntary information need not be provided to consumers directly on product labels, but can be provided via a scannable QR code or on the producer’s website.

Patchwork of European and national regulations

Regulation 1169/2011 permits the member states to adopt national rules for labelling of alcoholic beverages, and twelve of them have such rules of some type. These rules may continue in force until relevant regulations are adopted at the EU level, which is expected to occur within the next year or so.

A fundamental element of the labelling of any product is its name. Despite the existence of general rules for the use of names of food products in Art. 17 of Regulation 1169/2011, the naming of alcoholic beverages generates controversy. For example, there are no harmonised norms for determining what is perry, cider or mead. Consequently, imported products marketed in Poland may not meet national standards for classification, permitted ingredients or production methods set forth in the Act on Production and Bottling of Winemaking Products of 12 May 2011 or the Regulation of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on Labelling of Specific Types of Foods of 23 December 2014. This raises practical concerns about the possibility of selling products on the Polish market and the optimal method for labelling products to protect consumers from confusion about the products they are buying. Polish producers marketing alcoholic beverages in other member states encounter similar difficulties in balancing the principle of mutual recognition of norms across the EU and protection of consumers’ interests.

Labelling and other controversies

Labelling regulations are just one piece of a jigsaw puzzle of national regulations governing the alcoholic beverages industry. The numerous issues in this area arise from the various national strategies for controlling alcohol consumption and difficulties in reaching a compromise at the EU level.

In practice this means that when a producer of alcoholic beverages enters a new market within the EU, it must check at least:

  • Rules for naming and classification of alcoholic beverages (if not defined at the EU level)
  • Specific regulations on labelling of alcoholic beverages
  • Scope and rates of excise tax
  • Rules for the permissible scope of advertising and promotion of alcoholic beverages
  • The status of “alcopops”
  • Rules governing sales channels, licences for trading in alcoholic beverages, and other restrictions on sales, e.g. concerning minimum age and verification requirements.

The sum total of these regulations, multiplied by the number of member states with such regulations in place, can be overwhelming.

The current situation means fragmentation of the EU market and real difficulties for producers and consumers alike. In each instance, producers of alcoholic beverages must adjust their business model to suit local regulatory requirements, and consumers are not always fully and adequately informed about the products they are buying.

Morning after for the existing compromise

Just a few years ago the industry was unwilling to meet all the regulatory requirements for food labelling, but that has changed. This has been driven not only by legal regulations, but first and foremost by the increased awareness of consumers, who want complete information about the foods they consume, including alcoholic beverages. Producers are already responding by providing information voluntarily.

The Commission has declared that changes in the current regulations are unavoidable, but also signals that regulations on information for consumers about the ingredients and energy values of alcoholic beverages should be based on industry proposals. This represents a new, pro-business approach on the Commission’s part to drafting of regulations. Drawing on existing experience, e.g. in developing standards for socially responsible marketing of alcoholic beverages, it would be worthwhile for producers to reach a common position on product labelling of various types of alcoholic beverages.

Joanna Krakowiak, Life Science & Regulatory practice, Wardyński & Partners