Implementing Europe-wide food labelling when each country prefers a personalised flavour

The European Commission’s long-awaited ‘Farm to Fork’ (F2F) strategy is finally, after months of delays, being unveiled this week.

As announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen late last year, the F2F strategy is a key element in the “European Green Deal” and is supposed to showcase a cross-continental commitment to biodiversity and sustainability.

By shaping how the European food supply is produced, delivered, and consumed, the plan is supposed to have a major impact on the agricultural and retail sectors, as well as on Europe’s carbon footprint.

Not everyone, however, will be pleased to see the final product. The F2F was expected to include a bloc-wide blueprint for front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling, and some MEPs and civil society groups have been lobbying hard for particular systems.

However, at a meeting with the agriculture committee (COMAGRI) earlier this month, Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides revealed the ambitions of the policy had been scaled back. The F2F, in short, would no longer provide for a mandatory food labelling scheme. Instead, Kyriakides said the EC would promote a ‘harmonised’ approach allowing individual countries to choose their own strategies.

The North-South divide at play? Not quite

In a bid to tackle rising obesity and other chronic diseases across the EU, some MEPs have been pushing for the European Commission (EC) to make FOP labelling mandatory for retailers. Data from health authorities in France suggests nearly 50% of the country’s adult population is overweight, while a 2018 study on children in Germany conducted by the Robert-Koch-Institute found 15 percent of youngsters to be overweight. These statistics are especially relevant in light of the current health crisis, where obesity has been found to be a major contributing factor to severe cases of COVID-19.

Although the governments of EU nations broadly agree FOP information needs to be improved to help consumers choose healthier and more sustainable diets, there’s little consensus on methodology. France is pushing hard to make its Nutri-Score system the EU standard. Nutri-Score’s A-to-E scale rewards protein, fruit and fibre content with a positive green A rating, while relegating foodstuffs with high saturated fat, sugar and sodium content to lower D and E grades.

Nutri-Score has been taken up, at least in principle, by countries like Germany and Belgium, as well as by major food producers such as Nestlé and Danone. However, even where countries have signed on to implement Nutri-Score – such as in the Netherlands and Spain – health officials have questioned how the system calculates nutritional benefits, sometimes applying unilateral changes to modify the algorithm.

Showcasing divided opinion in Germany over the issue, a number of German MEPs joined Italian counterparts last week in signing an open letter calling on Kyriakides to “deeply evaluate” all of the FOP systems up for consideration through a “scientific-based approach”. The letter rejects FOP schemes which could “affect and mislead consumers’ choices” – a clear reference to Nutri-Score.

Making the case for the Mediterranean diet

Supporters of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ prevalent across southern Europe also argue Nutri-Score’s evaluation of products such as olive oil is flawed, as it doesn’t properly consider average consumption levels or any wider health benefits beyond calorie content.

Rich in fruit, vegetables and fish, the Mediterranean diet is widely regarded as beneficial for health and longevity. This view seems to be borne out by statistics: obesity rates in Italy are far lower than those in the UK, with multiple studiesconcluding that heart disease could be more effectively tackled through the adoption of a Mediterranean-style diet than through drug therapy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italy is challenging the dominance of Nutri-Score, proposing its own ‘battery-style’ Nutrinform system as a more nuanced alternative. Nutrinform rejects the idea of inherently ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods, instead rating products against recommended daily intake amounts. It’s an approach which proponents argue encourages a more balanced pattern of consumption.

Widening the field

Although the Nutri-Score/Nutrinform face-off has generated the most discussion in the Brussels bubble over the past few months, the schemes of other EU countries, including the Traffic Light regime used in the UK and Sweden’s keyhole system, are also candidates with their own bases of support. Even though the UK has left the EU, its system of “traffic lights” which rates the level of fat, saturates, sugar and salt in food products, is also in use in EU member Ireland.

Given the focus of the F2F on the environmental footprint of Europe’s food supply, some campaigners point out there are other – possibly more pressing – factors to consider, including the impact of our dietary decisions on the planet’s wider ecosystem. It’s estimated the global food system is responsible for over a quarter of human-derived greenhouse gas emissions, a factor that plays into the ongoing debate just as much as preferred health outcomes.

Given that a reduction in European meat and dairy consumption is seen as vital for the good of the planet, it could be argued any long-term plan that doesn’t encourage more plant-based choices threatens to undermine the ‘green’ goals of the Farm to Fork strategy.  That aspect of the debate may not bode well for Nutri-Score, whose algorithm is in some ways designed to be meat-friendly.

While the efforts to put Nutri-Score in place for the whole of the EU have so far brought together some MEPs and consumer associations with food giants like Danone, they have not convinced the Commission. Kyriakides has reaffirmed the bloc’s determination to improve consumer information on origin labelling, saying that multiple national measures were causing ‘a fragmentation of the internal market’.

All the same, Brussels may come to realise that different parts of Europe prefer to make their own way on this particular regulatory question – much as the UK decided to make its own way on so many others.

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