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With Covid-19 spiking, healthy nutrition gains urgency

Monday, 19 October 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Nutriscore is an effort to standardise food labelling, but the system has gained some opposition claiming there are better methods to consider. Credit: Belga

As coronavirus cases are skyrocketing across the EU, with France imposing a strict curfew for several metropolitan areas, the connection between the virus, bad nutrition and mortality has risen to the fore.

The matter was already discussed last week when several MEPs urged the EU to consider a more holistic approach for encouraging its citizens to eat more nutritiously under its Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy. The call for action is adding fire to the bitter debate over front of package (FOP) food labels, and is sure to once again intensify the dispute among European countries on how to better inform consumers.

It’s a dispute that was kicked off in 2015, when the World Health Organization released the European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015-2020, which recommends the introduction of user-friendly nutrition labels across Europe. While most European countries agree that such labelling would improve the level of consumer awareness about healthy eating, there is little consensus on how the labelling should work.

After the UK first introduced a voluntary FOP “traffic light” system in 2013, France published its own proposal in 2017, based on a combined colour-and-grade scheme ranging from green (grade A) to red (grade E). The French system, called Nutriscore, has gained some traction in recent years, as Belgium, Netherlands and Germany announced plans to adopt the scheme on a voluntary basis. Several food sector giants like Nestlé, Danone and Pepsico also support the French proposal.

However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the colour-coded system – especially now that Nutriscore is no longer the only game in town. In fact, despite several Western European countries opting for the label, an EU-wide consensus that Nutriscore should be the bloc’s label of choice is farther out of reach than ever: Italy, unhappy with the way Nutriscore’s traffic light system discriminates against Italian staple foods, has thrown its own system into the ring, “battery-powered” Nutrinform. Consequently, an increasing block of supporters, made out of both national governments and farming organizations has emerged, calling the validity of Nutriscore into doubt.

“Arbitrary and discriminatory”

European North-South divides are hardly a surprise, but on the topic of FOP labelling, a trans-continental alliance has formed in opposition to Nutriscore. Alongside Italy, six other countries including the Czech Republic, Greece, Latvia, Hungary, Cyprus and Romania have submitted a so-called non-paper to the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which formulates a rebuttal of France’s Nutriscore.

Though Nutriscore is never mentioned by name, the non-paper disparages “simplistic” approaches to nutritional warnings based on colours or letters, which they say ignores important contextual information, such as the daily nutritional intake. According to Teresa Bellanova, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture, “Diet and nutritional health are concepts much more complex than an algorithm”. One of the main criticisms of Nutriscore is the use of a “generic threshold of 100 grams or 100 millilitres” precisely because it isn’t adjusted to daily intake guidelines, leading to harsher gradings for foods usually consumed in small quantities.

Southern European countries have a particular bone to pick with the fact that olive oil is given a “C” or even “D” rating under Nutriscore due to its fat content per 100 millilitres. Although the Mediterranean diet is universally lauded by health authorities, its most iconic ingredient risks being classified as unhealthy thanks to this arbitrary quantity. Unsurprisingly, Italy has repeatedly described this classification as “discriminatory” – a perhaps understandable reaction considering that Nutriscore characterizes even Coke as a healthier choice than olive oil.

Opposition from within

These criticisms are increasing falling on open ears among other European countries with similar food cultures or general views on nutrition, including Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria. They could potentially join the fray at a time when the front for Nutriscore – never truly united in the first place – is slowly crumbling. Indeed, the biggest blow to France and Germany’s push for Nutriscore as the EU’s official label might come from within. As early as March, the all-important EU demographic of German and French farmers opposed the label. This sets the stage for a potential conflict between the governments of the two most powerful countries in Europe, which support Nutriscore, and the farming interests in those same countries.

The ante was upped once more in September, when COPA-COGECA, the continent’s largest agricultural lobby group, threw its “full support” behind Italy’s position opposing Nutriscore. A group of 77 Dutch nutritionists have also addressed an open letter to their government in which they expressed criticism of Nutriscore and the Netherlands’ plan to adopt it. In Spain, criticism regarding the future of olive oil production and export have pushed the authorities – tentatively favouring Nutriscore – to issue a statement granting exceptions from the label for products with only one ingredient.

The future of European food

Whether this will calm olive growers’ fears remains to be seen, yet it’s clear that for the vast majority of Europeans, particularly in a year marked by an unprecedented health crisis and the biggest recession in living memory, food label systems aren’t a top priority. Nonetheless, the looming decision will affect EU citizens immensely and for years to come: Not only will it dictate the way consumers are informed about dietary choices, but if done wrong, it can harm entire food sectors in the face of harsh classification.

The next few months are likely to bring about an escalation in the hostilities between EU’s different food authorities and interest groups, as European officials hope to have a decision on a standardized system by the end of the year. Nutriscore has had a head start, being the first label system to be tested in supermarkets, but with the opposition steadily increasing, that advantage might soon be lost.