PARIS — As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a shortage of sunflower oil, food producers plan to replace it with other ingredients such as rapeseed or palm oil. But companies face another problem: printing new packaging and labels in time.
That’s why France on Tuesday announced that it will temporarily allow food companies to tweak recipes of products containing sunflower oil and adapt their food labels later.
French authorities will authorize derogations to food labeling requirements, except for essential information, for two months. After that, companies will have to adapt their labels, including with stickers.
While recipe tweaks due to sunflower oil shortages will be needed “very soon … changing packaging takes a relatively long time,” a French economy ministry official said on Tuesday, presenting the derogation scheme with representatives of industry and consumer groups.
The situation is even trickier as, on the top of a shortage of sunflower oil, food companies are experiencing supply disruptions for paper used for food labeling, including stickers which are needed to update existing labels amid the current crisis. And that situation got even worse because of a strike at Finland’s UPM Kymmene, the world’s biggest maker of graphic paper, labels and food stickers.
“Hundreds or thousands of products could be impacted by those [recipe] reformulations,” the official said, citing oil bottles but also margarine, cakes, chips and other fried products. More than two thirds of sunflower oil consumed in France comes from Ukraine and Russia, he noted.
The temporary derogation will be possible for non-essential information only, and so won’t apply, for instance, to changes with an impact on allergens or which would contradict essential mentions such as “palm oil free” or “100 percent biological” on the labels. Those essential changes will have to be displayed on labels immediately, for example by adding stickers.
An official from France’s Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF, in French) explained that companies could be sanctioned by having products withdrawn from the market or even by opening a criminal procedure for misleading commercial practices.
The measure comes after a month of negotiations between French authorities and consumer and industry groups, which publicly welcomed the government’s efforts to take their worries into account. However, some of them think the authorities could have done even more and imposed stronger obligations on distributors, too.
“It’s better than before, but it’s not enough,” said Karine Jaquemart from consumer group Foodwatch, noting that distributors could have been required to provide that information on supermarket shelves, as they do for sales offers.
Jaquemart, however, appreciated the overall scheme, noting that the government has not always been sufficiently transparent in the past, for instance during the COVID crisis, when a similar problem emerged.
Companies will have to ask the French authorities for a derogation, and they will then publish their approval decision on a dedicated webpage. The authorities have already received around 200 derogation requests so far and the first decisions should be published this week, a French official said.
Meanwhile, French consumers have exacerbated the supply squeeze by panic buying bottles of sunflower oil, leaving supermarket shelves empty – reminiscent of the toilet paper crisis during the early days of the COVID pandemic. Sunflower oil sales in France were 55 percent higher in the week of April 4-10 than in the same period a year earlier, according to data from research firm IRi, published in Le Parisien.
This article has been updated.