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Debate on the eco-labelling of fisheries products

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At the end of June 2005 the Commission launched a debate on a Community approach towards eco-labelling schemes for fisheries products. It evaluates the current situation as regards eco-labelling and puts forward objectives, accompanied by available options for the level of regulation by the public authorities.

ACT

Commission Communication to the Council, the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee - "Launching a debate on a Community approach towards eco-labelling schemes for fisheries products" [COM(2005) 275 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

SUMMARY

The need to discuss eco-labelling * schemes was first addressed in a Commission Communication on the Future for the Market on Fisheries Products in the EU in December 1997. However, no progress was made on the issue due to differing views on how a common approach should be implemented. The importance of ensuring more sustainable exploitation of the marine environment has since increased considerably with the introduction in 2002 of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy. As consumers are demonstrating a growing interest in these labels and as significant progress has already been made, eco-labelling seems to be one way of further integrating the environmental aspects of the Common Fisheries Policy. The progress made as part of this policy opens up the issue of eco-labelling schemes.

The recent increase in the number of eco-labelled products creates difficulties in terms of competition, trade and consumer protection policies and has put the issue back on the agenda.

International momentum has also been created with the adoption of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) guidelines on "eco-labelling for fish and fisheries products from marine fisheries" and attention should be given to the work in the FAO and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on this issue.

Existing eco-labelling schemes

Existing schemes use different certification criteria, and in some cases are liable to cause market access problems. There prove to be reserves on the part of developing countries which fear their products may be excluded from the markets of developed countries. Furthermore, it is not always easy to ascertain the credibility of environmental claims displayed on the labels and the criteria used for issuing the label.

Work on eco-labelling in international fora

Despite the commitment under the Doha Development Agenda, the debate within the WTO has still not resulted in a better synergy between trade, development and environment policies. However, the FAO Committee on Fisheries adopted guidelines for eco-labelling at its 26th meeting in March 2005. The Commission was involved in drawing up these guidelines and fully supports them.

Objectives of a Community approach

The Commission considers that eco-labelling must stimulate consumer awareness of the environmental dimension of fishing and thereby give managers in the sector the financial incentive to go above and beyond the requirements of existing ecology rules. The Community policy should ensure:

  • sustainable fisheries and an adequate level of protection of the ecosystem;
  • a harmonised approach throughout the Community;
  • transparent and objective information for consumers. Information must be clear and verifiable in accordance with the consumer protection policy;
  • fair competition;
  • labelling schemes are not prohibitive for small and medium enterprises or developing countries.

Possible levels of regulation

The Commission feels there are three options. The public authorities therefore have the choice between:

  • non-action;
  • creating a single Community eco-labelling scheme;
  • establishing minimum requirements for voluntary private and/or public eco-labelling schemes.

Having assessed the advantages and disadvantages of each option, the Commission is in favour of the third one as it would offer enough flexibility and would be proportionate in terms of costs. It would also offer an appropriate level of consumer protection.

The key points of the assessment carried out by the Commission include:

  • The cost in terms of the administrative resources needed for action by the public authorities, and the expertise needed within the public authorities to take this action.
  • Ease of access to the schemes for small and medium sized enterprises and developing countries.
  • The transparency, credibility and reliability of the assessments carried out by eco-labelling schemes.
  • Integration into a certification procedure carried out by a third party.
  • The risk of market distortion, or even fragmentation, and restrictions on the free circulation of goods and on market access.
  • A division between private sector initiatives and public sector regulatory activities.
  • The flexibility of the schemes and therefore their ability to adapt their requirements to any developments without being discriminatory.
  • The coherence between various schemes which apply different criteria for awarding their eco-label, such as ecological stock management, protecting the ecosystem or the fishing technique used.

The debate

Before arriving at a real Community approach to eco-labelling a debate must be held on some key questions, such as:

  • What should an eco-labelling scheme certify?
  • How to ensure a non-contradictory approach whilst simultaneously offering a high degree of voluntary participation and feasibility?
  • How to use fully the potential of schemes to promote sustainable fisheries, while yielding real benefits for fishermen, processors and consumers?
  • Should the approach be more result oriented or means oriented?

Background

This Communication invites the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee, the members of the European Economic Area and all interested parties to participate in the debate on a Community eco-labelling policy.

As a result of to the debate the Commission may be able to put forward appropriate legislative proposals.

Key terms used in the act
  • Eco-labelling: an eco-labelling scheme under which a product can bear a distinctive logo or statement by which consumers are assured that the product in question has been produced according to a given set of environmental standards.

RELATED ACTS

Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament of 16 December 1997 - The future for the market in fisheries products in the European Union: responsibility, partnership and competitiveness [COM(1997) 719 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Communication from the Commission of 28 May 2002 setting out a Community Action Plan to integrate environmental protection requirements into the Common Fisheries Policy [COM(2002) 186 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Last updated: 20.10.2006
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