Luxembourg court confirms citrus fruit labelling rules

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has confirmed that citrus fruit labelling indicating the preserving agents and other chemical substances used in post-harvest processing is compulsory.

A provision of EU law on the marketing of citrus fruit (lemons, mandarins and oranges) provides that the packaging of those fruits must bear a label indicating, where appropriate, the preserving agents or other chemical substances used in post-harvest processing.

By adopting that provision, the Commission sought to ensure the correct application of EU legislation relating to food additives. To that end, it departed from a non-binding standard adopted by the UNECE under which the indication of the use of preserving agents or other chemical substances is required only if the legislation of the importing country requires it.

By a judgment of 20145 the General Court dismissed the action, brought by Spain, for annulment of that provision, holding that: (i) the Commission was not required to adopt, at EU level, a marketing standard for citrus fruit identical to that of the UNECE; (ii) the principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination had not been infringed since, as regards the objective of providing consumers with information concerning the substances used during post-harvest processing, citrus fruit producers are in a different situation to that of producers of other fruits and vegetables; (iii) the principle of proportionality had also not been infringed, given that, in perceiving the special labelling for citrus fruit, consumers will not come to the mistaken conclusion that fruits and vegetables without such labelling have not been treated with chemical substances; and (iv) the labelling relating to the possible post-harvest processing of citrus fruit was necessary in order to ensure adequate consumer protection, without it being acceptable to distinguish in that regard between consumers within the EU and those outside it.

Spain appealed to the Court of Justice to have the judgment of the General Court set aside. The Court of Justice has now dismissed Spain’s appeal in its entirety. According to the Court, the General Court provided sufficient grounds for its judgment and correctly held that the provision in question was proportionate to the aim pursued. The Court found, as the General Court did, that it is reasonable that consumers should be notified of the post-harvest processing of citrus fruit since, in comparison with thin-skinned fruits, citrus fruit may be treated with doses of chemical substances much higher than the average and their skin is liable, in a number of ways, to be incorporated into the human food chain. The Court noted that the maximum limits for residues of 2-phenylphenol (an agricultural fungicide used for waxing citrus fruit) are fixed at a level that is 50 times higher for citrus fruit than for other fruits.

The Court also pointed out that the General Court acted correctly in finding that the consideration of a possible competitive disadvantage was inoperative in the context of an assessment of compliance with the principle of equal treatment, since it was not such as to call into question the fact that the producers of citrus fruit covered by the contested provision are not in a comparable situation to that of producers of other fruits and vegetables.

Furthermore, the fact that neither the specific legislation on preserving agents and other chemical substances used in post-harvest processing nor the legislation on consumer information requires specific labelling for pesticides used in agricultural treatment processes does not have the effect of precluding the Commission from adopting a marketing standard which takes account of, inter alia, the interest of consumers in targeted and transparent information, as well as the UNECE standard recommendations. In particular, that fact does not preclude the Commission from adopting a provision providing for citrus-fruit labelling that mentions the post-harvest processing applied.

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