EU-wide uniform food labelling
How food must be labelled in general and what minimum information must be indicated on the packaging is uniformly regulated in the EU. This is based on the Food Information Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 (FIC), most of which entered into force on 13 December 2014, with the nutrition labelling section following on 13 December 2016. This EU regulation is directly applicable in all member states. It can be fleshed out and specified in certain points by the member states.
Legibility of mandatory information
Mandatory food information must be marked in a conspicuous place in a way that makes it easily visible, clearly legible and, where appropriate, indelible. It must not in any way, by any other information, pictorial matter or other inserted material, be hidden, obscured or separated, or the attention distracted from it.
Furthermore, the mandatory particulars must be printed in a font size where the height of the lower-case “x” is at least 1.2 mm. On small packaging (largest surface has an area of less than 80 cm², i.e. smaller than half a postcard) the font size must be at least 0.9 mm.
Name of the food
The name of the food must clarify the precise nature of a product as well as any special properties it may have. Typically, the legally prescribed designation must be used. There are mandatory standards prescribed by certain product ordinances for some foods, for example chocolate and cheese. Other designations (e.g. Spätzle) can be found in the German Food Code (www.dlmbk.de). If the name of a food is not legally prescribed, then the designation must be sufficiently descriptive so that the type of foodstuff is unmistakable.
List of ingredients
As a general rule, all ingredients contained in a prepackaged food must be listed on the packaging. The ingredients are listed in descending order of weight as recorded at the time of production. In certain cases, the weight percentage of an ingredient must be indicated, for example if an ingredient is mentioned in the name of the food or if it is highlighted by means of images on the packing.
The list of ingredients must also contain any food additives and flavourings used. Food additives must generally be listed with the name of their category followed by their specific name or E number. The category name illustrates what purpose the substance serves in the food (e.g. colour), and the chemical designation or E number shows what exact substance it is (e.g. curcumin or E 100).
The 14 most important substances or products causing allergies or intolerances, e.g. nuts or soy, must be indicated in the list of ingredients. In addition, these substances and products must also be emphasised in the list of ingredients, e.g. through the font type or style (e.g. bold font) or the background colour.
The net quantity indicates the quantity of the product, i.e. the number of items (e.g. in the case of fruit), weight (g or kg) or volume (ml or l).
The best-before date is one of the mandatory particulars of a food and indicates how long a foodstuff retains its specific characteristics if stored correctly. On highly perishable foodstuffs, the best-before date must be replaced by a use-by date. While many foodstuffs are still edible after the best-before date, foodstuffs are viewed as unsafe after the use-by date and must be disposed of.
The food packaging must indicate the name and address of the company responsible for the product.
The Food Information Regulation requires origin marking wherever the consumer needs this information in order to make a well-informed choice. For example, a foodstuff must generally be labelled with the country of origin or place of provenance if the consumer could otherwise be misled about the actual country of origin or place of provenance. This applies, in particular, if the information or packaging included with the foodstuff otherwise gives the impression that the foodstuff comes from a different country of origin or place of provenance.
Since 1 April 2020, the origin of the primary ingredient of a foodstuff must generally be indicated if it does not correspond to the country of origin or place of provenance of the product itself. Details are regulated by Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2018/775.
Instructions for use
If it would otherwise be difficult to use a foodstuff appropriately, instructions for use must be included (this may be the case for instant soups or baking mixtures, for example). These instructions must permit appropriate use of the foodstuff.
Alcoholic beverages (examples: wine, beer, spirits and fruit wine) must indicate their actual alcohol content if it exceeds 1.2 volume percent (% vol.).
Nutritional declaration (“Big 7”)
Since 13 December 2016, prepackaged foods must generally be labelled with a nutritional declaration. This must usually be presented as a table. To facilitate comparison, the nutrient content must always refer to 100 g or 100 ml amounts. Additional information can be given per portion or unit (e.g. slice or piece).
The nutritional information table must include details on
- the calories
- and on the amount of
- saturated fatty acids,
- protein and
contained (the “Big 7”).
Vitamins and other nutritional information (e.g. fibre) must be indicated if they are specially mentioned on the packaging. The “Big 7” can additionally be indicated as a percentage of predefined reference quantities relative to 100 g or 100 ml.
In addition to the nutritional information table, particulars regarding the energy content and the fat, saturated fatty acids, sugar and salt can also be repeated on the front of the package. This information may be given per portion, but the calorific value per 100 g or 100 ml must also be given.
To protect consumers from deception, special labelling requirements apply to food imitations such as vegetable fat instead of cheese as a pizza topping.
When using food imitations, the name of the substance used as the substitute must be indicated in close proximity to the product name.
Refined oils and fats of vegetable origin
If refined oils or fats of vegetable origin are contained in a product, the specific plant origin must be indicated, for example “palm fat” or “vegetable fat (coconut)”. If such ingredients are summarised as “vegetable oils” or “vegetable fats”, then this must be followed directly by a list of details regarding the specific plant origin (e.g. palm oil, soya oil). This can be followed by the phrase “in variable proportion”. If summarised, they are listed in the ingredients list by the weight percentage of all present plant-based oils and fats. The expression “fully hydrogenated” or “partly hydrogenated”, as appropriate, must accompany the indication of a hydrogenated oil.
Some meat or fishery products give the impression that they are made of a whole piece of meat or fish, but actually consist of different pieces combined together by means of other ingredients, e.g. food enzymes. Such products must additionally be labelled with the phrase “formed meat” or “formed fish”.
Date of freezing
The date of freezing must be indicated in the case of frozen meat, frozen meat preparations and unprocessed frozen fishery products. This must be indicated by the expression “Frozen on” followed by the date of freezing.
Foods containing caffeine
Beverages with high caffeine content (e.g. energy drinks) must bear the indication that they are not recommended for children or pregnant or breast-feeding women. This requirement does not apply to foodstuffs based on coffee or tea and whose name includes the terms “coffee” or “tea”.
A similar indication with regard to children and pregnant women is required for foods other than beverages, where caffeine is added for a physiological purpose.
In both cases, the caffeine content must also be indicated.
Labelling of nanomaterials
All ingredients that are engineered nanomaterials must be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients. The names of such ingredients must be followed by the word ‘nano’ in brackets.
In the case of prepacked foods offered for sale through the Internet, all mandatory food information, except the best-before or use-by date, must be available before the purchase is concluded. It must appear on the website or be provided by other appropriate means clearly identified by the food business operator. The food business operator may not charge consumers any additional costs for this. All mandatory particulars must be available at the moment of delivery.
Information on the monitoring of online food trade is available from the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL).
Prepackaged foods that were frozen before sale but are sold unfrozen must be labelled as “defrosted”. This requirement does not apply to:
- frozen ingredients used in the preparation of composite foods and contained in the end product;
- foodstuffs for which freezing is a technologically necessary step during the production process; or
- foodstuffs where defrosting does not have any negative consequences on the safety or quality of the foodstuff.
Specification and complementation by national law
In Germany, the FIC Regulation is complemented by the national Food Information Implementing Regulation (LMIDV).
The LMIDV makes use of various regulatory powers of the member states.
- For example, the LMIDV stipulates that foodstuffs marketed in Germany must generally be labelled in German.
- It also continues the legal situation applicable since 1994, according to which beer marketed in Germany must be labelled with a list of ingredients (European legislation does not require ingredients lists for drinks with an alcohol content of more than 1.2% by volume).
- Foodstuffs that are prepackaged for the purpose of immediate sale and offered to end consumers through self-service require certain labelling elements.
- It also regulates allergen labelling of foodstuffs that are not prepackaged (“loose goods”).
- The LMIDV also stipulates what represents a sanctionable offence in case of infringement of the FIC Regulation and its Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1337/2013.
The ordinances made redundant by the FIC Regulation and the LMIDV (Food Labelling Ordinance, Nutrition Labelling Regulation, VorlLMIEV) were repealed with the entry into force of the LMIDV on 13 July 2017.
Side note: extended nutritional labelling
According to Article 35 (1) of the FIC Regulation, the calorific value and nutrient quantities can, along with the standard nutrition information table, additionally be presented in a different format, as long as this format complies with certain requirements. The use of such labelling formats is voluntary and can only be recommended by the individual member states. In its coalition agreement for the 19th electoral term, the German federal parliament agreed to further develop nutritional labelling of processed and packaged foodstuffs.
A suitable model of extended nutritional labelling was developed in collaboration with food and consumer protection associations while taking into account the special interests of small and medium-sized enterprises. Further details are available at extended nutritional labelling: Nutri-Score.