What does one beer really contain? This is a question related to the new EU rules on nutrition labelling for food and drinks. The EU rules so far only apply to food and non-alcoholic drinks, but the question whether the regulation shall be extended to alcoholic beverages remain unclear. The Commission was supposed to have published a report on this issue last December, but this has been delayed. This has given rise to a situation where consumers easily may find out the content of a bottle of milk, but not of a bottle containing alcohol. Therefore, multiple associations have been keen on expressing their opinions on the matter. Especially the Brewers of Europe representing the beer industry, and the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), a lobbying group that represents the interests of the consumers at European level, are claiming that consumers have the right to know the content of what they are drinking. The opinions are put forward in a Special Report by EurActiv.
The delayed report
The reason behind why there are no rules on the matter with regards to alcoholic beverages is that the lawmakers of the EU were unable to agree on a definition of so called alcopops, a beverage which combines alcohol with soft drinks or juice. The Commission was obliged to define alcopops in order to solve the issue, and to submit a report in December 2014 on how alcoholic beverages should be regulated. No such report has yet arrived, and what is more alarming is that the Commission has stated that there still remains a lot of work in order to compile the report. It is at the time being not possible to say when the report will be published. Even though the Commission’s report has not yet been published, the association Brewers of Europe announced that they are going beyond the existing – or rather non-existing – rules by voluntarily fixing the labelling problem. Pierre-Oliver Bergeron, the Secretary-General of the association, explained that it is the right of the consumers to know the nutritional content of their beverages. One of the Brewers of Europe’s arguments for their voluntarily act was that the consumers would get a chance to balance their lifestyles in connection to beer.
What do consumers need to know?
Are we as consumers so badly informed regarding this subject? As can be read at page 3 of the Special Report, GfK (Germany’s largest market research institution) made a survey to examine how well aware consumers were of the content of beer, wine and whiskey. The survey showed that the consumers did not know very much about the content, for example how much calories the different beverages contained. The survey also showed that 69% of the participants thought that the mandatory nutrient labelling that exists for food and drinks should also be mandatory for alcoholic beverages. Most respondents also believed that beer contained more calories than it actually does, which might of course be a reason for the Brewers of Europe to actually show the calorie content of a beer.
But are consumers entitled to know the content of the different beverages? Would the consumers stop consuming for example beer, if the labelling showed that 100 ml of beer contained the same amount of calories as a chocolate bar? Is the exempted labelling demand a threat to consumer health? As most of us know, we have to consume calories in order to fuel our bodies so we can handle our daily activities. The issue with the calories in these beverages is that they are “empty calories”, that are not vital to the function of the body, as explained by Illaria Passarani, Head of the Food and Health Department at BEUC (see p. 7 of the Special Report).
The common measuring unit that is provided on the labelling is 100 ml. This has met resistance by some groups, for example SpiritsEurope. The organisation believed that this measure would mislead the consumers since it is “usually a fraction of the amount of beer a person might consume in one serving” but not to spirits since 100 ml is “equal to three servings” of this beverage (see p. 3 of the Special Report). SpiritsEurope claimed that the measuring should instead be based on the portion size for each beverage.
A problem for the breweries
Another question that has been raised in connection to the labelling is if it should be mandatory or voluntary. According to Renate Sommer, a centre-right MEP (European People’s Party) and the former rapporteur on food and labelling rules in the EP, a mandatory labelling might favour the big companies but not the small ones. The reason is that the larger companies have a more standardized list of ingredients in their drinks, whereas the ingredients of the smaller breweries’ beverages may vary from time to time, thus making the labelling trickier for the small companies. The laboratory research and creating new labels could also be too costly for the producers, thus creating a heavier burden on small breweries (see page 5 of the Special Report).
Evidently, there are a lot of voices putting forward different opinions on the matter, where the larger breweries see it as their duty to label the bottles, there are people who want to protect the smaller breweries, and some who are unsure of how one should treat the so-called alcopops. And in the middle of it all is the Commission which without a clear explanation is still about to make its report on the matter. Because no matter how we twist and turn it, the issue still remains – what do we need to sacrifice for which benefit? Do consumers need to know more about the products they are consuming, something that would perhaps negatively affect the smaller breweries, or should competition be made on more equal terms so that the smaller breweries can continue with their process?
Clearly, the main benefit for labelling the alcoholic beverages is that consumers need to know what they are drinking. Considering that one of the main health issues of the Western society today is obesity, it should be a main priority of the EU to make sure that European consumers at least have the possibility to choose a healthier lifestyle, by avoiding beverages that are heavier in calories. The delay does of course also create unsureness for the breweries. While a mandatory labelling may seem unfair to some smaller breweries, perhaps Pierre-Olivier Bergeron’s idea on providing information online would be a quicker solution to the problem, as such information would be easier to edit (see page 5 of the Special Report). Thoroughness of the Commission is welcomed; however one may wonder what exactly is taking so long when many of the solutions already seem to exist. It would certainly be nice to see some transparency with the Commission, as the public knows little to nothing about the ongoing work of the Commission regarding the report, who is working on it and when it is expected to arrive. At least The Brewers of Europe are taking the matter into their own hands, cheered on by the Commission, and are making sure that the consumers are properly informed. The question is of course, whether the breweries are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, or if there is purely an economic reason behind it.
by Sara Carlbom, Marcus Johansson, Emilia Pettersson