Making food labelling an EU responsibility

by Malakai Wade, Dajana Komp, Hanzhang Xu

Consumer organizations see a rising demand for a consistent food labelling system in the European Union. On September 30th, Germany decided to create the legal basis for the voluntary labelling of food with the Nutri-Score. Also for many nutrition scientists and other supporters of the Nutri-score this is an important step on the way to consumer-friendly labelling. The score makes it possible for consumers to see at first sight, if a product is rather healthy or not by rating products with numbers from A (high value from a nutritional point of view) to E (disadvantageous nutritional value).

“Now in Europe, there is one in two adults which is either obese or overweight,” Pauline Constant from The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) described the problem of the modern European society. “And when it comes to children the figure is one in three children are either obese or overweight,” Constant said. That highlights the strong request for showing citizens which products might not be as healthy as they seem or as advertisements make them look like.

Nutri-score explained

The Nutri-score is a front-of-pack nutrition label, translating the nutrition table on a product’s back into an easily understandable score. It is a further development of the British traffic light, but also includes fibre, proteins, the containment of nuts and other healthy components of food. At the same time it takes into account how many calories, sugars and how much salt and saturated fat is included in a product. To make the comparison easy and understandable, a colour in a range from green to red is assigned to the food, depending on the amounts of certain ingredients that are taken into criteria.

An example of the front-of-package label “Nutri-score” showing that this product has a rather healthy rating of “B”

Why is it important to make it mandatory?

Using this system on a voluntary basis means that a company can decide for each of its legal entities if they want to print the score on their products. Thus, if a company decides to use the Nutri-score for a particular division, which is an independent legal entity, it must be printed on all products of that entity without exception. Consumer organizations see problems that big companies with different legal entities will only register those subsidiaries for the score that provide well-balanced food. For instance, the Franch company Danone agreed to print the Nutri-score on its dairy product line, but not on its drinks as they have a lot of sweetened drinks. For this reason consumer organizations see a need to make the system compulsory.

Many of these organizations can be found that support consumer’s rights in different European countries. One among them is foodwatch, which is based in Germany but operates throughout Europe. The organization is in favour of the Nutri-score and tries to convince more companies and countries to implement it. “For three years there has been progress concerning the implementation of the Nutri-score,” said Luise Molling, research and campaign representative of German foodwatch. “The Nutri-score is the most successful model from a scientific point of view. It is the most understandable model, it has the largest influence on shopping behaviour […] and similar products can be compared at a glance.”

Additionally, Constant pointed out the importance of making it easier for people to have a well-balanced diet and make healthier choices by buying healthier products. “Facing this obesity struggle crisis, of course one of the factors is diet […]. Diet can have a strong impact on cardiovascular diseases. And that’s why we think tackling this problem via nutrition is really important. WHO and other international bodies have identified nutrition labelling, especially on the front of the pack, as one of the tools to tackle this obesity crisis,” Constant said.

Obstacles on the way to make it an EU responsibility

foodwatch as well as BEUC see two important steps on the way to the Nutri-score getting implemented all over the EU:

The first step is to increasingly convince food companies or supermarket chains to register their products for the Nutri-score. For companies it is important to increase sales numbers. On one hand, a company that offers a majority of A-C rated products and is a pioneer in implementing the score, gains good marketing.

On the other hand, some companies that mainly produce unhealthy products either reject the Nutri-score or would not implement it on a voluntary basis. A popular example is the company Ferrero. Molling questioned if the resistance of the industry can be broken in the future. “It seems like that, if we look at the situation ten years ago, almost the whole industry rejected a labelling,” Molling described the tendency.

A widespread implementation of the Nutri-score makes it preferable for companies to have a consistent labelling. “At some point the companies have a huge interest in making labelling standardized to avoid printing different packaging in every single country,” said Molling. “In France a lot of big supermarket chains, like Auchan and Carrefour, have already implemented it. […], that helps supporting it.”

Secondly, so far an implementation cannot be made mandatory; it is on a voluntary basis. “In Belgium, France, Spain and now Germany they have notified the European Commission that they will use this [the label], they will allow the retailers and the manufacturers operating on their market to use the Nutri-score,” Constant described the current situation.

 foodwatch deals with how to process with the topic at European level. Last year they talked to the General Directorate for health in the European Commission and received the answer that the Commission is working on a major report on nutrition labelling. “It should have been published last year but has still not been published so far,” said Molling. “We hoped that the report would contain a clear recommendation or an incentive to support the project of an allover EU labelling system. However, we have been told that the Commission does not see itself as the driving force, that it will not push the process forward on its own initiative and that it is important that member states take responsibility for it and put pressure on the Commission by supporting their own model.”

Also BEUC tries to promote the issue at the European level by supporting an EU-wide petition.

From the consumer organizations’ point of view the most important steps for further progress are getting large companies as well as strong European member states on board that put pressure on

the European Union and thereby leverage the topic on a political level and make it a priority on the agenda. It is doubtful, which could be the next country supporting the labelling. Italy is one of the more influential member states and has rejected the score, because they are afraid that it would be a threat to their traditional foods. Furthermore, it plays a role, how the Nutri-score will be accepted by the consumers.

A lot of different food labels can be found throughout the EU. This map provides an overview of  which ones are being used

The legislative process of implementation

The EU Commission is set to release the report Molling mentioned at the end of the year. The report has been due for about a year, but was delayed because new countries started using the system and the EU wanted to include their data. 

“This Nutri-score scheme indicates, according to our assessment, the overall nutrition quality of a given food or product,” said Anca Paduraru, Spokesperson for Health, Food Safety and Energy Union Projects at the EU Commission. 

So far, Nutri-score is only on a voluntary basis for both the member-states and food production companies. However, if it were to become mandatory throughout the EU, it would go through a specific legislative process. 

“To make such a thing mandatory you have to have a proposal from the Commission that goes through the process called ‘comitology’,” Paduraru explained. She also mentioned that when the member-states vote, there has to be a qualified majority of 65 percent. Additionally, if many large member-states are in favor, the confirmation process is faster. The following infographic goes into a more detailed description.

When asked whether the Nutri-score would affect free market trade, Paduraru explained: “They do it on voluntary basis and it’s the business food operators that are doing it. It doesn’t affect the trade between the countries,” said Paduraru. In fact, Paduraru stated that the EU made sure that Nutri-score is inline with their legislation, which covers the issue of trade.

As Paduraru explained, an EU-wide Nutri-score adoption is in its early stages. She thinks it will be several years before we potentially see a mandatory food health scoring system. However, member-states can still implement systems such as Nutri-score if they want. These systems raise awareness of the importance of healthy ingredients, especially to help the population live healthier lifestyles.

Editor’s note: foodwatch interview was conducted in German and quotes have been edited for clarification.

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