Nutri-Score and the Battle Over Europe’s Food Labels

Nutri-Score and the Battle Over Europe’s Food Labels

Within the past month, the government of the Netherlands has announced its intention to adopt ‘Nutri-Score’, while Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé has detailed how it plans to roll out Nutri-Score labels for its products across five European markets. Nutri-Score, a colour-coded food labelling system devised by French scientists and thus far officially implemented in France and Belgium, is one of a number of so-called ‘front of package’ (FOP) labelling schemes intended to help European consumers compare the nutritional values of similar food products quickly and easily.

Across Europe, policymakers at both the national and EU levels have come under increasing pressure from nutritional activists and consumer organisations to implement simpler nutritional labelling standards, while retailers and major food brands have been obliged to address growing expectations to help consumers adopt and maintain healthy eating habits. To this end, the Nutri-Score system – designed by a French team of nutritionists led by Dr. Serge Hercberg – assesses packaged food products on a sliding scale, with grades ranging from a green ‘A’ rating for the healthiest products to a red ‘E’ for products judged to be unhealthy.

The Nutri-Score algorithm makes these determinations by calculating ‘negative’ points (including calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium) against ‘positive’ ones (the proportion of fruits, vegetables, and nuts in a product, as well as fibre and protein). In a bid to tackle the rise of obesity and other chronic diseases across the continent, a group of MEPs is now pushing for the European Commission (EC) to make Nutri-Score obligatory for retailers.

Drawing Up the Battle Lines

The MEPs are seeking an official EC endorsement of Nutri-Score in order to implement the system across the bloc. While some consumer groups have welcomed the intervention, asserting it would tie producers EU-wide to the system and benefit consumers, Eurosceptics such as Matteo Salvini have denounced it as thinly disguised assault on traditional foodstuffs – like olive oil, cheese and parma ham – that fall foul of Nutri-Score’s algorithm. Populists such as Salvini, however, are far from the only critics of the system, for which the devil seems to be in the details (or lack thereof).

Indeed, while Salvini may see the debate over Nutri-Score as a battle for hearts and minds – even accusing Brussels of hatching a ‘secret plan’ to hamstring the ‘Made in Italy’ initiative – Nutri-Score can’t be described as a mass movement, outside a small circle of activists and nutritionists. A European citizen’s initiative backing the MEPs’ motion is currently falling far short of the necessary one million signatures to assure its consideration. Even backers, such as Dutch health secretary Paul Blokhuis, are wary of fully endorsing the scheme as it stands today. Blokhuis, in fact, described Nutri-Score in its current form as ‘not an ideal system’ because its nutritional calculations aren’t yet entirely aligned with Dutch dietary guidelines.

In Germany, meanwhile, Nutri-Score has even faced legal scrutiny for violating regulations governing nutritional claims. The German district court of Hamburg found Nutri-Score to be in violation of European regulations governing health and nutrition claims, especially because its attribution of ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades imply to consumers that these foods have nutritional benefits. The court’s ruling stems from concerns consumers may be misled as to nutritional merits of different foodstuff. Olive oil is penalised because of its fat content, for instance, while sugar-free cola rates as a healthier choice.

France’s Mixed Results

The French government, while vocally supporting Nutri-Score at the EU level, is bound by EU law to introducing the scheme on a voluntary basis only so as not to upset the European internal market. On the ground, recent polling from Nielsen found that only 14% of French consumers were paying attention to the label. The French food sector body, ANIA, has been careful to emphasise that Nutri-Score food labelling is only one of many approaches available to help change consumer behaviour, making clear that other tools – such as education and the development of technological innovation – are equally important in combatting public health issues. A spokesperson for ANIA summed up the opinion of many critics of the scheme by stating that ‘no single food can be considered good or bad for health’ in isolation.

Why, then, are governments like the Netherlands in such a rush to adopt it? In part because the European Commission is already two years behind on its obligation to endorse a ‘front of pack’ (FOP) labelling system. The delay is due, in part, to the lack of real-life impact studies on the efficacy of FOP and the need to commission large-scale trials to better understand how consumers respond to schemes like Nutri-Score. In this regard, Nutri-Score’s backers hope a ‘bandwagon’ effect will essentially tie the Commission’s hands if enough countries adopt the standard. This is far from assured. An international independent committee of scientists is currently evaluating Nutri-score with a view to tweaking its standards to better reflect nutritional guidelines before fully committing to its implementation.

By rushing to implement close off the debate before such evaluations are completed for Nutri-Score and other competing systems, regulators and activists could ultimately be doing consumers a disservice. While consumers evidently need reliable information about what they’re eating in order to make informed buying decisions, Nutri-Score’s determination of what constitutes a ‘healthy’ as opposed to an ‘unhealthy’ choice clearly still needs work.

Featured image: freepik

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