* EU parliament boosts draft rules aimed at fighting obesity
* Meat, fish products must show country of origin, MEPs say
* Parliament rejects “traffic light” labelling schemes
By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS, June 16 (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers voted on Wednesday to strengthen controversial draft rules on food labelling that aim to fight rising levels of obesity in Europe.
The European Parliament backed a proposed requirement for companies to label the energy, sugar, salt and fat content of their foodstuffs on the front of packages, and added protein, unsaturated fats and fibre to this list.
Voting in Strasbourg, France, MEPs also added a requirement for country-of-origin labels on meat, dairy, and fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and fish products used in processed food — a move that opponents called “protectionist”.
But it was unclear whether the country-of-origin requirement would need a positive EU impact assessment before adoption, with MEPs and industry saying after the complex vote that they were still trying to work out exactly what had been agreed.
After much industry lobbying, MEPs rejected mandatory “traffic light” labels on certain convenience foods and soft drinks, with red, amber or green colour codes showing the relative amounts of salt, sugar and fat they contain.
Consumer groups accused MEPs of ignoring the needs of consumers and caving into food industry pressure.
“Literally hundreds of lobbyists in Strasbourg this week were trying to persuade MEPs, which they obviously did, very successfully,” Dave McCullough of European Consumers’ Organisation BEUC told Reuters Television.
The Corporate Europe Observatory campaign group said the food and drink industry had spent over 1 billion euros ($1.23 billion) opposing the traffic light system, which consumer organisations argue is easier to understand.
But in a statement the EU food and drink industry confederation, CIAA, said the traffic light system “failed to take into account the place of a foodstuff in the context of a balanced and healthy lifestyle.”
“Democratically-elected Members of the European Parliament have had their say on the Commission’s draft law,” CIAA Director General Mella Frewen added.
Beer, wine and spirits should be excluded from the nutritional labelling requirements, the parliament said.
MEPs rejected a proposal specifying the layout and minimum font size for labels, and said simply that they should be “clearly legible.”
EU countries should not be allowed to adopt national labelling requirements that go beyond the EU regulations, MEPs said, which would prevent them from implementing their own traffic light systems, for example.
The traffic light label was developed by Britain’s Food Standards Agency and is used by some UK retailers such as J Sainsbury (SBRY.L) and Marks and Spencer (MKS.L), though others including Tesco (TSCO.L) have resisted the scheme.
“The question of whether the British will have to abolish their system hasn’t been clarified,” the German centre-right MEP who led the parliament’s debate on labelling, Renate Sommer, said after the vote.
When asked, the EU’s executive European Commission failed to give a clear answer to the question, Sommer added.
The labelling rules were proposed in 2008 and are unlikely to be finalised this year or next, with EU governments not due to adopt their first-reading position until February 2011 and a second reading almost inevitable, Sommer said.
“When the regulation will come into force I can’t tell you, but it’ll still be a long process,” she said.
Some EU governments have backed the idea of mandatory country-of-origin labels for certain products during their initial discussions, but their position on most of the other proposals is still unclear.
When the rules are finally agreed, companies should have at least three years to implement the nutritional labelling requirements, the parliament agreed. (Editing by James Jukwey)