Since the ’70s, EU manufacturers have had to comply with a highly prescriptive and complex regime for pack sizes. Now in a major blow for anti red tape lobbiers, EU ministers have decided to scrap the scheme for 70 consumer products.


Brussels has a deregulation target for 2006 and has vowed to oversee 54 simplication measures before the end of the year.  By July only five had been tackled so EU Ministers were pleased to announce in September "political agreement" on some good news for European food manufacturers. This was in the form of a proposed EU measure abolishing mandatory pack sizes for no less than 70 pre-packed products commonly found in our supermarkets. 

Food packaging today…

Many consumer products sold within Europe, from pet food to toothpaste, are sold in specific quantities as determined by either national or Community law.  Much of this regulation was introduced over thirty years ago with the aim of protecting consumers and enabling products to be consistently sold throughout the European Union (previously Member States had used quantity and packaging-based barriers to restrict trade).

Since the 1970s we have seen EU wide legislation introduced to cover matters such as unit pricing; metric systems; unfair business practices where consumers are concerned and a variety of labelling requirements.  Many have therefore felt that rules on packaging size are archaic in today's market, where purchasing habits have altered and new products placed on the market are getting increasingly difficult to place within old traditional product categories.

Food packaging tomorrow…

Following an impact assessment in this area, the European Commission deemed the existing legislation to be too confusing.  The proposed new Directive aims to repeal current requirements relating to packaging sizes for 70 products and to consolidate all existing legislation on this subject (consisting of two EU Directives and 25 national rules) into one single Directive.  As for Member States' flexibility, they will be prevented from legislating on pack sizes for products other than for those the Directive will still seek to regulate.  The Commission is also pleased that the new proposed Directive shows the world that they are seeking to reduce red tape. 

Other reasons for the changes?

So are there other reasons behind these changes?  Well, the Commission believes that if adopted, the legislation would optimise competition for the food industry, provide more choice for consumers and better flexibility for producers and also simplify existing internal market legislation (which fits in with the Commission's Better Regulation initiative).

Excluded products

Manufacturers who will not by all accounts be able to get excited about these changes, are those involved in the production of

(a) spirits;

(b) wine;

(c) coffee;

(d) sugar;

(e) products sold in aerosols;

(f) milk;

(g) butter;

(h) pasta; and

(i) rice.

Packaging controls are likely to be kept in place for the time being for these products, which are all considered to form staples of the average consumer's diet.  The Commission says it has singled out these products because of concern that consumers could be misled into buying a cheaper product available without realising it contains a smaller volume.  A pint of milk will therefore remain just that!  Pre-packed bread; spread-able fats and tea will also be excluded from any new Directive and national rules will continue to apply to these products.

Timing aspects

Having excluded the above range from the deregulation, the Commission, following intense lobbying, limited the exclusion. In other words, if the measure goes through as proposed, out of the above excluded products, four categories will only continue to be covered by strict pack size rules for another five years. Then these too will be free of pack size restrictions. These products are butter, dried pasta, coffee and white sugar. The catch here is that even during the five year period, member states will not be able to ban imports of products in those categories from other member states, purely on grounds of the pack size.

For the products that will be free of pack size restrictions straight away if this measure is approved as it stands, including glue, fish fingers, pet foods, detergents, soft drinks, cleaning products, paints and shampoo, the Commission initially wanted the proposed amendments to be in force for twenty years. The European Parliament, however, wanted a more flexible approach whereby the legislation would be revisited after an initial period of say eight years.  The argument ran that an earlier review would be necessary as the state of the food market in twenty years time would be too difficult to predict now. 

Next steps

The proposal now moves to the European Parliament for ratification. We will keep you informed as to the progress of these proposals and consumers will have to wait and see to determine whether a lack of regulation equates to a better regulation where packaging and choice is concerned.  In the meantime design consultancies agencies may like to start thinking about innovative pack sizes and shapes for their clients!

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