EU front-of-pack nutritional labelling: voluntary or mandatory? (part 1)
- François-Xavier Branthôme
EU-wide labelling scheme decision pushed forward to 2023 (October 28, 2022)
“Without accurate and reliable information, there is no choice."
EU-wide labelling scheme decision pushed forward to 2023 as Commission admits “complex” situation; the European Commission is expected to be delaying its food labelling plans and is unlikely to recommend one existing label.
In 2020 the European Commission committed to introduce a mandatory and harmonized front-of-pack nutritional labelling scheme across member states as part of the Green Deal and its Farm to Fork strategy and to reduce obesity.
The Commission said it would submit a proposal by the end of this year. A recent European Parliament roundtable debate on October 26 organized by Italy's European Union representation and supported by Italy's food industry association Federalimentare, examined various schemes currently used across various parts of Europe including Nutri-Score, the Nordic KeyHole and Italian Nutrlnform Battery System.
After the debate Italy's European Union representation said that a final decision has now been postponed to the second quarter of 2023. In response, a European Commission spokesperson explained: “The proposal for a revision of the Regulation on Food information to Consumers is scheduled for adoption in the coming months. The Commission is still assessing the outcome of the past impact assessment and the consultations it held with Member States and stakeholders. No decision has been taken yet on how sustainable food labelling will be exactly framed and regulated."
Jindrich Fialka, Deputy Minister of Agriculture from the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU told the European Parliament round table that consumers show strong willingness to increase their knowledge about the content of their food.
He claimed that discussions in September revealed that half of member states were in favour of voluntary harmonization of nutritional FOP labeling, with several in favour of a mandatory scheme.
But there was acknowledgement that SMEs should be protected from new obligations during an "energy and economie crisis", he said.
The Nutri-Score FOP label has always been considered a front runner. But Roser Domenech Amado, acting head of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, said Nutri-Score is very "well known... but only one of a few under consideration". Calling the debate "complex", she said the decision, from the Commission's point of view, “is far from finished”. "We are taking all the evidence into account and checking with all the member states because most want harmonized FOP rules but there is clearly not an agreement on which rules”.
Nutrition labelling has been mandatory on all pre-packaged foods since 13 December 2016 (EU Regulation 1169/2011 of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers). However, the way in which nutrition information is presented on the front-of-pack (FOP) is not harmonized by European law. This information is simply provided voluntarily by food business operators.
Nutri-Score - which classifies food and beverages according to their nutritional profile using a scale of five colours and letters (A is green to represent the best nutritional quality while E is a red to show ifs the lowest) -- is being pushed by the likes of France, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, where it is used as a national voluntary label scheme. It is also supported by large food manufacturers such as Nestle and Danone.
The Nordic KeyHole nutrition label, meanwhile, is used in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Lithuania (and European economic area countries Norway and Iceland). The Nutrlnform Battery recently became the official system in Italy, which has long argued that the NutriScore System unfairly discriminates against its famous food delicacies such as olive oil, Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese. Italy fears these items, under NutriScore, would receive a red-to-orange warning sign on labels owing to their high fat and salt content The debate also discussed the merits of the UK's traffic light system, which express a separate evaluation for calories, sugars, salt and saturated fats, indicating their quantities.
It’s further believed that the Commission will not propose taking possession of one of these already-existing labels.
A European Commission spokesperson said: "The different options which the Commission will put forward will build on already existing formats already developed in the European Union, such as NutriScore (France), Nutrlnform Battery label (Italy) or the KeyHole (Sweden)."
Italy used the European Parliament debate to air its objections to Nutri-Score, Ambassador Stefano Verrecchia said: "Italy remains committed to fostering an open and science-based debate on how to encourage healthy diets through adequate consumer information. We support the EU's laudable objective of reducing obesity and non-communicable diseases, but warn against disregarding national dietary traditions and artificially classifying some foods as healthy and others as unhealthy".
'Defending' culinary traditions
Italy also complains that Nutri-Score is computed on the basis of 100g of food and not per serving. Prof. Luca Piretta, nutritionist, specialist in Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy of the University of Rome told the debate "we must not forget the products and producers that represent the territories, history and tradition in Europe, and that we have a duty to defend."
She added: "Communication to consumers through a front-of-pack label must be informative and educational. Limiting the responsibility for proper nutrition to the evaluation of a single product available on a shelf is absolutely misleading and sometimes totally counterproductive since one cannot know how much of that product will be consumed (unless the portion is intended), what type of diet it will be included in, let alone the health status of the individuals who will be consuming it. "
Caria Valeiras, from the European consumer association SAFE (Safe Food Advocacy Europe), and supporter of a harmonized FOP label rollout, highlighted the key findings of their recent report on the main voluntary nutrition labeling schemes in use in Europe and around the world: "Non communicable diseases and obesity due to unhealthy eating habits are a serious problem for modem society. It is essential that consumers be adequately informed about their choices. Without accurate and reliable information, there is no choice."
But Nutri-Score hits back
Nutri-Score proponents, however, hit back at what they saw as a one-sided debate. Serge Hercberg, professor of nutrition at the Université of Sorbonne Paris Nord's Faculty of Medicine, who helped devise label, said the event contained "all the usual fake news disseminated against Nutri-Score, especially by cheese and processed meats sectors and their representative/lobbies... there is a lot of disinformation trying without any scientific basis to discredit NutriScore with a total negation of the science (more than 110 papers published in peer review journals).”
He further complained Nutri-Score was facing "direct pressures coming from COPA COGECA, big food companies opposed to Nutri-Score (Ferrero, Lactalis, Coca-Cola, Mars, Mondelez, Kraft,...) and Italy," adding: "If EC favours science and public health, Nutri-Score should be chosen. If not, considering that Nutri-Score is too 'polarizing' (due to the opposition of economic sectors and Italy), we may consider that the European commission has yielded to the agro-food lobbies."
Here is a digest of the other news of the last few months concerning front-of-pack labeling and the debate on the choice between the NutriScore system and competing models.
Food labelling has a significant impact on consumer decision-making
“To provide information in a clear, consistent and comprehensive way”
As both the European Commission's Joint Research Centre and Safe Food Advocacy Europe release reports detailing how the food industry conveys information, calls for change emerge.
In September 2022, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) which acts as the Commission's science and knowledge service, published the results of four scientific studies exploring how food industry players are currently communicating food information to consumers.
The results provide guidance on various areas within food information, including front-of-pack nutrition labelling, digital communication and origin labelling. Following the scientific studies, the JRC will use these results to submit a proposal to revise the European Union's (EU) rules on the food information consumers receive as part of the “Farm-to-Fork” Strategy and Europe's Beating Cancer Plan.
Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) also released a report entitled “(Mis)understanding NutriScore: Analysis of the algorithm's shortcomings” in September 2022. In announcing the publication of its report, SAFE revealed that the NutriScore Scientific Committee had revised the NutriScore algorithm for various categories, including vegetable oils. However, despite this change, SAFE relays that the Committee has failed to ensure informed choices towards healthier products are available to consumers.
Consumers want clarity to gain confidence
Today’s consumers are calling for greater transparency on labels. Food information needs to provide shoppers with information on whether a food product is too calorific or high in sugar, sodium, or fat, and also ensure that there are no chemical additives or other harmful substances in it, a spokesperson at Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) says. Consumers also want to understand whether products contain nutrients that are beneficial to their health.
Labels, therefore, need to be clear comprehensive, simple and contain consistent information. "Consumers may not be able to make informed choices if, for example, the rating rules for a certain type of product differ from the rating rules for a different product, as is the case with NutriScore between foods for which the rating is calculated “as sold” and those for which itis calculated “as prepared", says SAFE's spokesperson.
In addition, food labeling needs to display truthful information on the nutritional values of the food concerning the portion provided. “The 100-gramme measure is an industrial standard, which is inappropriate for consumers," SAFE states.
Health concerns prompt calls for change
Several factors drive calls for improvements to the information food manufacturer provide. Dysmetabolic diseases, chronic diseases and obesity are a problem for modem society, SAFE says.
Unhealthy diets, characterized by an intake of ultra-processed food as well as food products with high fat, calorie and sugar content, and lack of regular physical activity are associated with chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer, SAFE adds.
“To be able to adopt a healthier eating style, consumers must be empowered to make informed consumption choices, and this requires clear and understandable information on food packaging, as well as making sure thot heath messages on food products are scientifically justified”, SAFE's spokesperson continues.
Front-of-pack labelling recommendations
The JRC conducted a study on front-of-pack nutrition labelling schemes, releasing a report detailing its findings and providing an evidence update.
Consumers see front-of-pack nutrition labels as a quick and easy way to acquire nutrition information when making purchase decisions, the JRC study found. In addition, less complex labels require less attention and time for consumers to process the information.
The study also found that consumers prefer simple, colorful and evaluative summaries on front-of-pack food labels, which are easier to understand than more complex, non-evaluative, monochrome labels.
"Front-of-pack nutrition labels can guide consumers towards healthier diets”, adds the Commission's JRC. "Front-of-pack nutrition labeling seems to provide incentives to food businesses to improve the nutritional quality of their products, such as by reducing added salt or sugars," the Commission's JRC adds.
The role of the digital labelling environment
Digital labelling garners more attention from consumers and the broader food industry as it provides an alternative source of information to traditional physical food packaging.
In examining the role digital labelling has in today’s food information space, the JRC released its literature review on means of food information provision other than packaging labels.
The JRC made several findings. Firstly, the ways the food industry provides direct access to food information in the marketplace, such as menu labels, shelf labels and point-of-sale signs, can be effective at influencing consumers towards healthy behaviors when compared to online means that require external tools to access the information, such as QR codes or website links. Additionally, if the information is not provided on the food packaging, food information should be directly visible in the marketplace to influence consumers, the JRC says.
A greater understanding of food information in the digital sphere is required to ensure it meets consumer needs and expectations. “There is a need for more research comparing the provision of food information through labels and digital means," says the Commission's JRC.
"SAFE has always had concerns about the calculation method used by NutriScore to convey nutritional information,” says the non-profit organization’s spokesperson, commenting on what prompted the NutriScore Scientific Committee to revise its algorithm, "We are reassured that the proponents of the method themselves agree with us, having changed the algorithm,'' adds SAFE.
The NutriScore algorithm was changed, SAFE states, to fill in some gaps and fix some inconsistencies. The purpose of these modifications is to better differentiate products within homogeneous categories by considering the presence of saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Following this revision, some product categories' scores will now be changed, "in some cases for better, in other cases for worse", says SAFE.
However, SAFE does not believe these changes go far enough. "We saw that these changes are not sufficient, and the algorithm revision fails in fully addressing existing problems”, SAFE shares. For instance, in the category of vegetable oils, there is no adequate differentiation between products with different percentages of monounsaturated fats and valuable nutrients, such as vitamins,
Further action is needed
Focus and questions remain on how the food industry provides information to consumers on food products in a clear, consistent and comprehensive way. For example, SAFE urges additional amendments to be made to NutriScore. The non-profit organization says that its analysis highlighted several aspects which require action to avoid misleading consumers.
"First of all, the level of food processing should be taken into consideration because several authoritative studies link the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality," says SAFE.
The organization compared the results of the NutriScore with those of other labelling systems that assess the level of food processing. It found that the results of the NutriScore were often more favorable than those of the other systems, SAFE reports. Similar results also emerged when comparing it with systems that evaluate calorie intake and the presence of sodium and sugar more severely, it reveals.
Furthermore, SAFE states that NutriScore should negatively evaluate the presence of chemical additives and endocrine disruptors, which it does not currently take into account. In addition, it asks for the system to positively assess the presence of beneficial nutrients such as unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals and polyphenolomega-3 fatty acids, which it highlights are also currently disregarded.
The calculation of the nutritive value should also be made based on the food's portion, which SAFE emphasizes is already required by the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) Regulation in Article 32(5), rather than the basis of the 100 gramme or milliliter measurement. The latter often does not correspond to the amount of food consumed, SAFE shares.
Finally, SAFE states that there are rules for using the NutriScore system unknown to the consumer. "The trick of calculating the score on an arbitrary 'as sold' or 'as to be prepared' basis is an example," says SAFE. "Action should also be taken on this point because the system must be easily understandable and not convey misinformation, especially to weak consumer groups and children," SAFE's spokesperson adds.
The second part of this dossier will be published shortly.
EU front-of-pack nutritional labelling: voluntary or mandatory? (part 2)
EFSA: Scientific advice related to front-of-pack nutrition labelling
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Italy: taking a stand against the Nutri-Score trend?
Italy: compulsory place-of-origin labeling prolonged until December 2021
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