U.S. food brands: how to sell online in Europe in 6 strategic steps

Clare Daley
March 1, 2024
5 min read
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U.S. food brands: how to sell online in Europe in 6 strategic steps

Europe is a lucrative market for U.S. food brands. 

Europeans have around €12.1 trillion available to spend on essentials and treats – and this figure is rising year-on-year. But launching an American food brand in Europe can be a complex process; you need to get your head around the local, legal and linguistic requirements of up to 44 countries.

How can you simplify your expansion plan without cutting corners? Here are Hooley Brown’s six strategic steps to selling online in Europe – honed from real-world experience working with international food brands.  

Step 1: make sure your product composition meets European regulations 

In Europe, the EU and UK use a precautionary principle to manage food safety. As a result, there are more restrictions and limitations on many product categories compared to the USA. 

For example, there are several additives that can feature in products sold in most U.S. states that cannot be included in foods sold in Europe, such as: 

  • Azodicarbonamide
  • Brominated vegetable oil
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Certain colouring agents, including blue 1, yellow 5, yellow 6 and red 40 
  • Olestra 
  • Potassium bromate
  • rBGH (rBST)

The first step towards exporting into Europe is ensuring that your product composition meets local requirements – and reformulating your recipe if it contains restricted ingredients. 

There are also differences in the way certain ingredients are categorised in Europe, which can affect your product labelling. For instance, European allergen regulations include ingredients that aren’t classed as major allergens in the USA. These include:

  • All cereals containing gluten (not just wheat) 
  • Celery and celeriac
  • Lupin
  • Molluscs 
  • Mustard
  • Sesame
  • Sulphites 

For more information on allergen regulations, check out our blog post: how does food allergen labelling differ in the UK, USA and Australia? 

Step 2: translate your product packaging into local languages 

One of the obvious differences between selling food products in the USA versus Europe is language complexity. You can’t get away with everything being written in English!

It’s a legal requirement for foods sold in Europe to be labelled in their official national language(s). To balance compliance and cost, many brands combine multiple languages on a single product label – this also helps to meet packaging requirements in countries like Belgium and Switzerland, which have more than one official language. 

There are several things to consider when localising your product packaging for a European audience, including:

  • Finding a translation agency that understands your sector to ensure accurate pack copy. EU authorities have preferred terms that few general translations will be aware of.

  • Redesigning your product packaging to accommodate multiple languages.
  • Ensuring your marketing and point-of-sale collateral are also translated for local audiences – while you might choose to cluster languages on your packaging, certain assets (like your website) should be available in each individual language. 

  • Getting your final copy and design compliance-checked by someone who understands market regulations and can make sure everything meets local requirements. 

If you’re looking for support with creating compliant multilingual packaging, read our blog post: 4 strategies for clustering languages on your product packaging

Step 3: localise your online product listings 

Your website isn’t the only asset that will benefit from being translated before you sell online in Europe. 

E-commerce is one of the most affordable, lowest-risk ways to test market appetite – and you’re more likely to resonate with consumers if you localise your online product listings. 

76% of consumers prefer products with information in their own language, according to CSA Research. Translating your Amazon listings from U.S. English into European languages will help with discoverability and guide potential customers more effectively towards the checkout.

In addition to localising the text for your product listings, think also about adapting your product images. For instance, if there’s a person in your product imagery, do they look and dress like they live in your target region? Are your close-up packaging shots using the correct language for that market? 

Step 4: secure legal representation in Europe

As an overseas seller trading on digital platforms, you will need legal representatives based in both the UK and the EU to sell online in Europe. 

Your EU and UK legal representatives must have a registered business address in the relevant region. Their role is to make sure your product's technical documentation complies with local requirements and to keep due diligence for local trading standards. 

Your legal representative must be designated by written mandate, and their name and address should appear on your product label or packaging to ensure accountability. 

Failure to secure a UK and EU legal representative could result in your products being removed from sale and even financial penalties. 

If you don’t have established connections in Europe, a compliance agency can act as your UK/EU representative – it’s a service that Hooley Brown offers to our food clients. 

Step 5: make sure your food brand meets European tax compliance 

Each country in Europe has its own VAT registration system, and if you have a physical retail presence, you will need to be VAT registered in every country you sell. 

However, some international brands choose a ‘distance selling’ model – where goods are stored in one country to supply to customers in another. Previously, those brands could register for VAT in the country where their stock was stored but didn’t need to pay VAT in the countries they supplied until they reached the EU’s Distance Selling Threshold. 

In July 2021, the EU Distance Selling Threshold was replaced by the One Stop Shop Scheme. 

This scheme simplifies pan-European trading by allowing international companies to deal with their EU VAT obligations through an online portal. You only need to register once in one single EU member state, and this is valid for the declaration and payment of VAT on all distance cross-border sales to customers within the EU.

EU officials say the One Stop Shop scheme reduces red tape by up to 95%

Step 6: understand the cost to manage your packaging 

In addition to the cost of translating your product packaging for European markets, your brands may also be subject to fees for managing and disposing of said packaging – depending on the countries you target. 

Many European regions have Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws in place, which require commercial companies to financially support the waste management of packaging they place on the market. 

In addition to financial commitments, some countries will require you to print disposal instructions on packaging to encourage reuse and recycling. Italy’s environmental laws lead the way in this area, as companies must use a specific alphanumeric code to indicate what your packaging is made from and how it should be disposed of. 

Some EU countries have launched additional restrictions on the type of packaging you can use. For example, France has banned plastic overpackaging for fresh fruit and vegetables weighing less than 1.5kg and non-compostable stickers stuck directly to fruit and veg.

Smooth your path into Europe with Hooley Brown 

‘Sell online in Europe in six steps’ makes the journey sound simple – but as the points we’ve shared demonstrate, getting your U.S. brand Europe-ready can be a complex process. 

Many international food companies don’t have the resources or expertise to localise their products and marketing for every region they want to target. Others start the process but quickly become overwhelmed. 

So, how can your food brand explore European sales opportunities without stress and costly mistakes? 

Working with a trusted partner who knows the European market inside-out can accelerate your export strategy and help you create compliant products that local consumers will love. 

Hooley Brown empowers brands all over the world to expand their sales reach and we’re experts in helping U.S. food companies sell online in Europe. 

Whether you’re looking for support with your export planning and strategy, you want to localise your products and packaging for European markets, or you need a registered legal representative in the UK and EU, we’re here to help. 

Let’s discuss your expansion plans – my email address is or you can message me on LinkedIn

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