Health-Related Information for Consumers
10 June 2010
With the Consumer Information Law (VIG) that came into force two years ago, Germany achieved a level of consumer protection equal to that of other countries. From an expert point of view, however, there is still room for improvement to the right of consumers to procure health-related information from authorities and agencies. This is the conclusion reached by jurists from Heidelberg University who evaluated the VIG in a comparative study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection. Referencing other legal systems in the United States and Europe, the scholars advocate simplifying the procedure for requesting information in particular.
In addition to ensuring greater transparency, the “Law for the Improvement of Health-Related Consumer Information” – “Consumer Information Law” (VIG) for short – is designed to help prevent and contain food scandals. Above all, the VIG provides the relevant authorities with more opportunities to proactively inform the public, notably in connection with health hazards and consumer fraud. The aim of the comparative study was to identify the levels of consumer protection codified in the relevant legislation in other European countries and the USA and thus identify any potential for more effective regulations for German consumers. In addition to the United States, the study headed by Prof. Dr. Thomas Pfeiffer, director of Heidelberg University’s Institute of Foreign and International Private and Economic Law, examined the situation in Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
As Prof. Pfeiffer explains, the inclusion of affected third parties could be simplified. At present, for example, representatives of companies have to be given a hearing before citizens, journalists or consumer associations are granted access to the information they have requested. Prof. Pfeiffer sees a number of ways to shorten this procedure, one of them being to involve third parties only as the exception rather than the rule, provided certain conditions are met. Also, documents could be “classified” by authorities on receipt. If there were no objections from the company involved, they could be immediately filed as “suitable for publication” and made available accordingly.
The Heidelberg study also noted that often the information requested has to be laboriously prepared for release by the staff of the relevant authorities. A significant reduction of processing time could be achieved by allowing inspection of files or documents, as practised in the legal systems of other countries. Using this approach, access is granted only to those documents that are clearly designated as available for inspection. “But even this does not mean access to information is unconditional,” Prof. Pfeiffer explains. “As it stands, the German Consumer Information Law differs in this respect.” Weighing the rival merits of these two approaches is something that must be left to the politicians, Prof. Pfeiffer emphasises.
The findings of the study are available at www.vigwirkt.de/de/vig-im-dialog.
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A digital photo of Prof. Dr. Thomas Pfeiffer is available from the Press Office.
Prof. Dr. Thomas Pfeiffer
Institute of Foreign and International Private and Economic Law
phone: +49 6221 542240
Communications and Marketing
Press Office, phone: +49 6221 542311