The Commission has notified the UK with a formal letter, marking the first stage in the pre-litigation procedure, the final step of which could be referral to the European courts of justice with the possibility of fines.
Discussing the decision, a spokesperson for the Commission said: “The Commission has decided to seek information from the UK about front-of-pack nutrition labelling requirement for pre-packed food products in the UK, following received complaints from food and retail companies and representative organisations asserting that the use of such labelling would negatively affect the marketing of several products.”
The spokesperson added: “The Commission fully shares the objective of public health and fight against obesity pursued by the recommendation of UK government.”
“However, as the guardian of the treaties, the Commission is looking for the most appropriate and the less trade restrictive means to achieve this objective, while preserving the achievements of the internal market and preventing obstacles to free movement of goods.”
The decision follows an investigation by the Commission earlier this month into the compatibility of the UK’s so called ‘traffic light’ scheme - a voluntary front-of-pack labelling system introduced in the country by its Food Standards Agency (FSA) - with EU law.
The system ranks four nutrition elements – sugars, fat, saturated fatty acids and salt – by assigning the colour red, green or amber, depending on content levels.
Supporters say the scheme provides consumers with a clear and understandable guide to nutrition.
Yet, as the Commission pointed out in its announcement, others had expressed concerns that: “The simplistic character of the traffic light scheme might in certain instances create some misconception as regards the qualities of certain foodstuffs, such as nuts, seeds, and oily fish where significant amounts of fat come from those ingredients and is naturally occurring.”
Critics said this was likely to make the“marketing of some products more difficult and thus hinder or impede trade between EU countries”, as well as hinder attempts to harmonise EU food law.
It has been suggested that this may apply in particular to Italian foodstuff like olive oil.
Mutiny in the ranks?
Responding to the decision, trade association FoodDrinkEurope said it had always expressed concern about an individual member state taking such an approach, as it may "generate a proliferation of different national voluntary schemes across Europe, which could fragment the EU Internal Market and cause confusion for consumers".
Meanwhile, the wheels appear to be in motion for a similar colour-coded scheme in France.