New EU legislation on primary ingredient - but for what benefit?

New regulations come every so often. On April 1, 2020, it’s time again. Then the EU regulation on primary ingredient comes into force. The goal is to prevent misleading messages about origin. But will consumers be wiser by the new regulation or is it just bureaucratic acrobatics?

10 February 2020 •

On April 1, new rules will apply to ori­gin labelling. The EU has decid­ed when and how the ori­gin of the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent in food should be indi­cat­ed. But what is a pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent? What is meant by ori­gin? And are the new rules meaningful?

What is it all about?

To under­stand how the EU’s new rules on ori­gin labelling of pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent fit into the big­ger pic­ture, I con­tact Ulrika Ehrhardt at the Swedish trade asso­ci­a­tion Livsmedelsföretagen. She is an expert on food and legislation.

Ulrika Ehrhardt says that in 2011 the EU decid­ed how infor­ma­tion on food should be pro­vid­ed to con­sumers. This is described in Regulation (EU) 1169/​2011regulation, which is often called the reg­u­la­tion of infor­ma­tion.

At the same time, it was decid­ed that rules should be drawn upon how food should be labelled when the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent in the food has oth­er ori­gins than the food itself. These rules became clear in May 2018. They are described in Regulation (EU) 2018/​775regulation which is described as an imple­ment­ing reg­u­la­tion.

When the Implementing Ordinance was clubbed, it was decid­ed that food com­pa­nies will be allowed to arrange their labelling until the last March 2020. As of the first of April, it must be clear­ly stat­ed on the pack­ag­ing whether the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent is of a dif­fer­ent ori­gin from that spec­i­fied for the prod­uct as a whole. This infor­ma­tion can be pro­vid­ed in dif­fer­ent ways, either by talk­ing about the ori­gin of the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent or by stat­ing that it is of a dif­fer­ent ori­gin from the prod­uct in gen­er­al, says Ulrika Ehrhardt.

Ulrika Ehrhardt empha­sizes that their mem­bers are wel­come to con­tact Livsmedelsföretagen for per­son­al­ized ser­vice and guid­ance. This is some­thing we rec­om­mend as many cas­es are unique and inter­pre­ta­tions remain to be done.

Some concepts

Before we con­tin­ue, we must work out some concepts.


An ingre­di­ent can be a sub­stance or a prod­uct, but also aro­mas, addi­tives and food enzymes are count­ed as ingredients.

Primary ingredient:

The pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent can be one or more ingre­di­ents that make up more than 50 per­cent of the food. Now the atten­tive read­er might note that only one ingre­di­ent can be the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent. However, accord­ing to the EU, the def­i­n­i­tion of the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent also may apply to foods with sev­er­al ‘equiv­a­lent’ ingre­di­ents. Equal in the sense that it is not giv­en from the consumer’s per­spec­tive which of the ingre­di­ents is the pri­ma­ry. An exam­ple is but­ter cook­ies where either flour or but­ter can make up more than 50 per­cent of the con­tent. Some con­sumers may asso­ciate but­ter cook­ies with but­ter and think it should be the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent. And for oth­ers, it is flour that applies. This is what the EU has tak­en on.

Country of origin:

A coun­try of ori­gin can be a coun­try where the entire extrac­tion and pro­duc­tion of the ingre­di­ent takes place. But a coun­try of ori­gin can also be the last coun­try where an ingre­di­ent is put togeth­er if the ingre­di­ents come from dif­fer­ent countries.

Place of provenance:

If an ingre­di­ent is more asso­ci­at­ed with a geo­graph­i­cal area than a coun­try, you can spec­i­fy a place instead of ori­gin. It can be a city, a region, a sea, or a land area that includes sev­er­al coun­tries, such as the Alps.

Supply chain

In the food indus­try there are a num­ber of dif­fer­ent play­ers, all of which play an impor­tant role in the sup­ply chain. But it is the end pro­duc­er, i.e the food pro­duc­er, that sells to end con­sumers or large house­holds that the new reg­u­la­tion is aimed at.

The new reg­u­la­tion places par­tic­u­lar empha­sis on end pro­duc­ers who work with pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ents and who also have a com­plex, or irreg­u­lar sup­ply chain.

The end man­u­fac­tur­ers have the ulti­mate respon­si­bil­i­ty for declar­ing the goods cor­rect­ly, but must at the same time take into account unpre­dictable events and exter­nal factors.

We can imag­ine a French cheese pro­duc­er who gets the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent milk from France, but dairy farm­ers are on strike at the moment, which actu­al­ly hap­pens from time to time. They have to search else­where in for­eign coun­tries. Perhaps they will end up with milk from Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany. The cheese man­u­fac­tur­er must then spend time and mon­ey on mark­ing each of these coun­tries and keep track of which milk is asso­ci­at­ed with which country.


Food drink Europe

Now things become a bit pecu­liar. Food drink Europe is an indus­try orga­ni­za­tion that has pub­lished a guide with guide­lines for how food pro­duc­ers should nav­i­gate the new regulation.

In the guide you can read about the options avail­able when it comes to dec­la­ra­tion and labels.

You are free to choose just how pre­cise you want to be when it comes to the dec­la­ra­tion of ingre­di­ents. The only com­mon denom­i­na­tor is that the coun­try of ori­gin or place of ori­gin must be under­stood by the ‘nor­mal­ly informed aver­age consumer’.

EU and non-EU

We can choose a coun­try and we can choose a place of ori­gin. We already know that. But we can also choose ‘EU’, ‘non-EU’. And lis­ten and be amazed - ‘EU and non-EU’.

If we look back at our exam­ple with the French cheese­mak­er, the new reg­u­la­tion does not have to mean as much hard­ship as we thought. If we have pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ents from Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, our French friends pre­fer to choose ‘EU and non-EU’ as the declaration.

Obviously, one objec­tion would be those food pro­duc­ers who choose the easy route may be affect­ed by cred­i­bil­i­ty prob­lems. It can become a pres­ti­gious norm in the indus­try to be as detailed as pos­si­ble. But it remains to be seen. Currently, our French cheese­mak­er has solved the problem.

As long as you bring milk from all three coun­tries in the same prod­uct, you can use the same labels all the time. As you know, Switzerland is not a mem­ber of the EU.

If you choose milk sole­ly from Belgium and Germany, but some­times from Switzerland, you have to keep track of and switch between dif­fer­ent labels which can be both expen­sive and resource consuming.

But imme­di­ate­ly, new ques­tions arise. Doesn’t the reg­u­la­tion become a bit ineffective?

Another option

The whole point of the reg­u­la­tion is to cre­ate trans­paren­cy for the consumer.

A cheese, or any oth­er prod­uct for that mat­ter, whose pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent comes from the EU and out­side the EU tells us almost nothing.

However, there is anoth­er option. You do not even need to men­tion the coun­try of ori­gin or place of prove­nance of the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent. It is suf­fi­cient to men­tion that the pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent has a dif­fer­ent ori­gin or prove­nance than the food as a whole.

‘The pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent milk does not come from France’, our cheese pro­duc­er may choose to put it.

A balancing act

How should we inter­pret and under­stand the reg­u­la­tion? Why has it become so vague when the inten­tion has been to strength­en con­sumer power?

The European Commission’s com­ments on the reg­u­la­tion sug­gest­ed that the ini­tial labelling of pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent should be vol­un­tary. At the same time, the pres­sure from con­sumer groups and sus­tain­abil­i­ty move­ments have been great to bring about a change in the law and thus increased transparency.

The result is a clas­sic legal gym­nas­tics exer­cise. You get a change in the law which still means that you have to make a dec­la­ra­tion of the goods. But at the same time, the nature of things does not change very sig­nif­i­cant­ly. At least not for the better.

For what benefit?

In the worst case, the result may be end pro­duc­ers alter­nat­ing between dif­fer­ent labels, depend­ing on which sup­pli­er they are cur­rent­ly using. It can also affect the inven­to­ry man­age­ment and pro­duc­tion process as the raw mate­ri­als must not be mixed.

All this costs mon­ey. And for what ben­e­fit? There is a great risk that vague and impre­cise word­ing about ori­gins makes the con­sumer con­fused rather than enlightened.

There are still many ques­tions about the reg­u­la­tion that may be the sub­ject of new arti­cles lat­er on. Something tells me that we will have rea­son to return!

Are products affected by Eureba or Navia?

How are prod­ucts that con­tain Eureba or Navia affect­ed by the new rules? I ask Suzanne Preddie-Atterby, Bayn’s expert in food law.

Suzanne Preddie-Atterby notes that the new rules only apply to pro­duc­ers of food intend­ed for end con­sumers or large house­holds (end pro­duc­ers). However, pro­duc­ers ear­li­er in the chain are still affect­ed because they must ensure that end-pro­duc­ers have enough infor­ma­tion to be able to com­ply with the new rules.

In the case of Eureba - which replaces sug­ar one by one - it can be con­sid­ered a pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent only if the sug­ar it replaces con­sti­tutes at least half of the ingre­di­ents in the final prod­uct. With the excep­tion of almond pulp and marzi­pan, it is not like­ly. Thus, in prac­tice, the use of Eureba is not affect­ed by the new rules.

As for Navia - which is a plant extract such as ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides - they are used in such small quan­ti­ties (for exam­ple, 3 grams of ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides give the same sweet­ness as 1 kg sug­ar) that they are not affect­ed by the new rules either.

You are of course wel­come to con­tact us if you have any questions.

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