The CJEU in this ruling elaborated on the scope of rights guaranteed in Articles 15 (freedom to choose an occupation and right to engage in work) and 16 (freedom to conduct a business) of the Charter in relation to the general interest and to the principle of a high level of health protection enshrined in Article 35 of the Charter. In its considerations the court refers to the essence of rights, the respect for which is required by Article 52 in case of a limitation of a Charter right that in principle is legitimate.
Deutsches Weintor is a cooperative of wine-growers. The labels on its bottles bear the inscription “mild edition, easily digestible” referring thereby to reduced acidity levels.
The authority responsible for supervising the marketing of alcoholic beverages objected to the use of the description “easily digestible” (“bekömmlich”). Indeed, the authority argued that this constitutes a “health claim” within the meaning of Regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods hence any claim that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health. Pursuant to Article 4(3)(a) of the mentioned regulation, beverages containing more than 1,2% by volume of alcohol (e.g., wine) shall not bear health claims. Article 4(3) leg.cit. does not provide for any exceptions to this prohibition.
The authority therefore ordered the cooperative to remove the adjective “bekömmlich” when advertising the wine.
The CJEU was asked to answer the following questions:
The Court in its reasoning stated that
Hence, Regulation No 1924/2006 must be interpreted as meaning that the words ‘health claim’ cover a description such as ‘easily digestible’ that is accompanied by a reference to the reduced content of substances frequently perceived by consumers as being harmful.
Addressing the second question, the court stressed that Article 6 para. 1 TEU recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter to have the same legal value as the Treaties. Account is to be taken of Article 15 para. 1 and Article 16 of the Charter, but it is important also to take into account the second sentence of Article 35 of the Charter, which requires a high level of human health protection to be ensured in the definition and implementation of all the European Union’s policies and activities. As is apparent form the preamble to Regulation No. 1924/2006 that health, protection is among the principal aims of that regulation. As a result, the court found that the fact that a producer or distributor of wine is prohibited under this regulation, without exception, from using a claim of the kind at issue in the main proceedings, even if that claim is inherently correct, is compatible with the first subparagraph of Article 6(1) TEU.
Check of proportionality
When several rights protected by the EU legal order clash, there is a need to reconcile the requirements of the protection of those various rights and to strike a fair balance between them. The Court stressed that alcoholic beverages in view of the risks of addiction and abuse as well as in view of its complex harmful effects, represent a special category of foods that is subject to particularly strict regulation. The protection of public health constitutes an objective of general interest justifying, where appropriate, a restriction of a fundamental freedom.
In addition, the Court stressed that neither the freedom to conduct a business (Article 16) nor the right to property (Article 17 CFR) are absolute rights. They must be considered in relation to their social function. Consequently, restrictions may be imposed on the exercise of those freedoms, provided that those restrictions in fact correspond to objectives of general interest pursued by the EU and do not constitute, with regard to the aim pursued, a disproportionate and intolerable interference, which impairs the very substance of those rights. As the legislation at issue only controls but does not prohibit the production and marketing of alcoholic beverages, it does not in any way affect the actual substance of freedom to choose an occupation or of the freedom to conduct a business.