MEPs caused outrage yesterday by rejecting a colour-coded system of food labelling which health campaigners said would inform consumers about levels of fat and sugar and halt rocketing levels of obesity.
Instead of the traffic light labelling system devised by the UK Food Standards Agency, the MEPs backed the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system favoured by food manufacturers. The GDA scheme, which has the support of Pepsico, Danone, Kraft and other multinational food corporations, is expected to be introduced across Europe by 2013, unless blocked by member states in the EU's Council of Ministers.
As reported in The Independent on Tuesday, food manufacturers had mounted one of the biggest lobbying campaigns ever seen in Europe ahead of the vote.
Yesterday one Conservative MEP, Struan Stevenson, described how hundreds of people from the industry had been trying to meet him. He said he had held five meetings with the Italian chocolate company Ferrero Rocher alone.
He told the BBC: "The lobbyists have now penetrated the inner sanctum of the MEPs and they're walking into our offices very often without any appointments at all. People are objecting to that and saying we should have more control about where lobbyists are allowed to go. But on this issue there are armies of them. I've never seen anything like it."
MEPs voted on a series of food labelling measures. They backed the European Commission's proposal for mandatory front-of-pack labelling of quantities of fat, saturates, sugar and salt – and calories – expressed per 100g. They also voted for details of protein, fibres and transfats to be included elsewhere on the packaging.
Compulsory country of origin labelling will be extended to all meat, poultry, dairy products and other single-ingredient products, rather than just on certain foods such as beef, honey and olive oil, as is the case currently.
The traffic light vote pitched the socialist and green groups, including the Labour Party, which backed the system, against centre-right and right-wing groupings including the Conservatives, who backed GDAs.
Renate Sommer, a German MEP in the centre-right EPP group who drafted the Parliament's report, said: "Personally, I am pleased that MEPs did not support traffic light labelling, but I also feel that we can continue to improve the current proposal to better inform consumers."
British health and consumer groups were furious. The British Heart Foundation said the rejection of traffic lights went "against all the evidence".
Peter Hollins, chief executive, said: "The European Parliament should be ashamed of putting the interests of the food lobby ahead of the health of the people they represent. Thousands of people across the UK have taken action to ask their MEPs to back traffic lights because they want help to make healthy choices.
"But the food industry has spent millions of pounds lobbying to block this improvement in food labelling. David has been no match for the industry's Goliath."
Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumers' Organisation, said: "Despite being presented with a wealth of independent research confirming that the vast majority of consumers wanted the colour coding system, MEPs have mystifyingly voted against it.
"One wonders how we are to convince lawmakers that the fight against obesity and the battle to improve public health needs to start with action today, not tomorrow."
She described the vote as "a very, very serious setback".
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