Companies will have the freedom to choose the size of packaging they use for most of their products under a new directive passed yesterday by EU member states.
The decision ends the need for processors to adapt packaging sizes and product quantities to the differing restrictions imposed by each member state. The directive allows free sizes for all prepacked products, except for wines and spirits, for which mandatory EU sizes already exist.
The set of restrictive rules were abolished by EU ministers sitting on the Competitiveness Council. Earlier this month the European Parliament approved the directive.
Industry commissioner Günter Verheugen said the passage of the directive would make it easier for companies to trade within the EU, and would also allow companies to adapt their products to consumer preferences.
The vote in favour of the new packaging directive was an important symbol of the European Commission's commitment to cut back on rules, reduce costs to businesses and consumers, and increase choice, he explained.
"Today's decision underlines that we have moved from words to deeds and that we are working hard to cut unnecessary red-tape on all fronts," he said.
The directive will be formally adopted soon, he added.
Once adopted it would require the replacement of 27 different national rules and two EU directives on nominal quantities with one single EU directive. The directive would also reflect a decision made by he European Court of Justice, which supports the liberalisaton of pack sizes.
Consumer products such as detergents, pet food, ice cream, frozen food, low alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, cleaning products, paints, shampoo, toothpaste are sold in quantities that are currently determined by national or EU law.
The new directive abolishes such provisions, which date from the seventies, and fixes the nominal quantities in which products can be sold. Such rules on quantities were thought to protect consumers and to be necessary if products were to be sold throughout the EU.
However, since then, the EU has developed a legal framework for consumer protection. Three different directives now deal with unit pricing, unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices, and labelling requirements.
The rules give consumers better protection than rules on quantities, the Commission argued when presenting its proposals.
New products have also been placed on the market that do not fit with traditional product categories. These include mixtures of soft and alcoholic drinks, concentrated washing tablets, sweeteners sold in capsules, and mixtures of yoghurt, fruit and cheese.
It also simplifies regulation on nominal quantities by merging two directives and by combining regulation on metrological control of pre-packed products, currently dealt with under two directives, in one single act.
The original draft directive, as previously amended by the Council, would allow for a phase-out of national nominal quantities for milk, butter, dried pasta and coffee for a maximum period of three and a half years.
The phase out period for sugar would be of a maximum of four and a half years. The phasing-out period would be applied with effect from 18 months after entry into the directive.
An impact assessment published last year by the European Commission estimates that by freeing up packaging sizes for the products marked for phase out, supermarkets would require more sizes to be delivered to them.
The study found that supermarkets would especially be interested in having sizes that are slightly smaller than the most currently sold sizes as a means of making promotions offering 10 per cent free, such as 82.5cl and 1.1L.
The Commission study estimated the changes would cost processors an average of three per cent of turnover, depending on the size of the operation.
"The benefits for producers of fixed sizes turn into costs if sizes would be free," the Commission noted. "It concerns the costs of investment into more flexible production facilities."
The move forms part of the European Commission's plan to simplify EU regulations and reduce administrative costs for businesses.