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Label blindness, by Jeremy Beadles

Published:  18 January, 2007

This year one of the top issues on the drinks industry agenda looks likely to be the proliferation of different health warning labels from around Europe.

In October 2006 the French Government introduced a health warning for pregnant women on all alcoholic drinks. All containers (bottles, cans and bag-in-boxes) have to bear the logo below or the warning: La consommation de boissons alcoolises pendant la grossesse, mme en faible quantit, peut avoir des consquences graves sur la sant de l'enfant' [The consumption of alcoholic drinks during pregnancy, even in small quantities, can have serious consequences for the health of the child']. This applies to all alcoholic drinks sold in France, whether they are home-produced or imported.

The legislation came into force immediately, but current stock can be sold until it runs out, provided it was labelled or marketed before 3 October 2006. The warning or logo has to appear within the same field of vision as the alcohol content and can be included on the back label. It has to be printed on a background that makes it stand out, clearly visible, legible and indelible. There is no mandatory minimum size, although the warning must not be concealed, covered or separated by any other indication or picture.

Finland has followed suit and in December announced that it intends to impose two written warnings, in both Finnish and Swedish, on the label of all alcohol beverages sold in the Finnish market. There will be a general warning about the harmful effects of the product on health, and a special warning about the risk of foetal damage if the product is consumed during pregnancy. There is a three-month consultation process with the European Commission and other member states before this legislation can be adopted by Finland, but it is likely to proceed.

France and Finland have both argued that the imposition of country-specific warnings are exempt from the constriction of European labelling law on the grounds they seek to protect public health. The problem is that whatever benefits these health messages bring, they act as barriers to trade, reduce the use of pan-European labels and add cost to the supply chain.

In the UK, the WSTA and other industry associations have been in discussion with the Government for nearly a year to see if an agreement can be reached on a voluntary standard format for alcohol drinks labelling. The Government would like it to include:

number of units contained in the drink (by container and standard serving)

the Government's sensible drinking message (2-3 units per day for women, 3-4 units for men)

a responsibility message (such as Enjoy responsibly')

a pregnancy warning message.

Much of this information is already included on many beer, wine and spirit containers, but the aim is to offer a standardised format for companies to use if they wish. The delay in reaching agreement has primarily resulted from the different advice offered in England and Wales (pregnant women should not exceed 1 to 2 units once or twice a week) and Scotland (pregnant women should avoid alcohol). We understand that a compromise has been reached and we expect discussions to begin again soon. A more detailed summary of the current position is available from the WSTA.

When we look at the different approach being taken in the UK, France and Finland, and consider that there are 24 other member states who could all take different approaches, and add in the variety of other global labelling issues being discussed, such as allergen warnings, nutrition and ingredients labelling, we appear to be moving away from a common market economy. The risk is that every country will need a different back label and that is a barrier to trade. The WSTA is making a strong case that the EC must get a grip on this issue. Labelling changes cost money and national labelling requirements add cost and act as a barrier to entry, particularly for small businesses. The industry needs certainty and the ability to plan long term.

But perhaps more importantly we need to ask Do consumers want all this information?' Do they need to know what filtration product was used to make a wine? When I look at the back label of a bottle of wine I want to know where it comes from, what it will taste like and what food to drink it with. But soon there won't be room on a bottle for this information. I query whether the back label is the best place to inform consumers about some of these messages - a view supported by many research findings. By trying to include everything we risk the consumer missing the important information. Labels should act as a signpost to further information for those interested. That is the logic of including the Drinkaware website on packaging.

I am not saying all labelling is unnecessary but I don't believe it should be seen as an automatic solution. Educating consumers on the risks of alcohol misuse will never succeed through product labels alone. They have a role to play but only as part of a much wider education and awareness initiative.