Italy launches « frontal assault » on Nutri-Score
- François-Xavier Branthôme
Fears mount for split labelling systems in Europe as Italy launches 'frontal assault' on Nutri-Score.
The Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) has announced an investigation into several companies using the Nutri-Score front-of-pack labelling scheme, raising suggestions different systems may eventually be deployed in different parts of the EU.
The firms in question are Italian companies GS, Carrefour Italia, Pescanova Italia Sri and Valsoia, the French companies Regime Dukan and Diet LabH British breakfast cereal Weetabix and an unnamed German sweet producer.
The AGCM has also launched an investigation against the owner of the French app Yuka, which aims to give a healthy evaluation of food products based largely on the Nutri-Score system.
The label has been officially recommended by health authorities in France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Spain, though individual countries will hold off making Nutri-Score compulsory until the EU, by the end of 2022, announces which mandatory FOP labelling scheme it plans to introduce.
Italian producers of traditional foods such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano and olive oil however have long complained that the Nutri-Score algorithm unfairly discriminates against these products. The Italian government has accused Nutri-Score of being at odds with “the principles of the Mediterranean diet”. For this reason, Rome has proposed to the Commission another scheme, called Nutrlnform (See related articles below), based on a "battery-powered" symbol similar to the UK's traffic lights, which uses columns or batteries to display the percentage of energy, fats, saturated fats, sugars and salt contained in the portion of product in relation to reference daily intake.
Nutri-Score misleads consumers, fears the Italian Competition Authority
According to the AGCM, the fear is that the Nutri-Score label, as well as the scores and judgments provided by the Yuka app, are "mistakenly perceived as absolute assessments on the healthiness of a particular product, regardless of the overall needs of an individual (diet and lifestyle), the quantity and frequency of intake within a varied and balanced diet and in the absence of adequate warnings”.
It complains that Nutri-Score's colour / letter scale could favour products classified as green in purchases and disadvantage those classified as yellow/orange/red, "regardless of the actual nutritional intake in a balanced diet". It added that "the construction of the alphabetic and chromatic scale of evaluation is carried out using an algorithm that does not allow consumers to understand the scope of the nutritional claim given, since the criteria (the correspondence between the quantities, the categories of nutrients and the relative score), as well as the objectivity of the assessments, are underlying the release of the Nutri-Score.”
AGCM also expressed concern that the Nutri-Score calculation is per 100 grams /100 ml of product, "without taking into account that there are foods that are not usually consumed in quantities of the same order of magnitude".
In light of this direction of travel from the Italian competition authority, Luca Bucchini, managing director of Hylobates Consulting, believes the investigation will "almost inevitably" lead to a negative outcome when the decision is announced in six months.
“This is a frontal assault on Nutri-Score with the aim of effectively banning it in Italy”, he said. “If Nutri-Score is declared misleading, as it seems likely, any company using it may face fines up to million euros, which would be problematic even for supermarket chains”.
"Scientific consumer research shows that consumers prefer Nutri-Score over other front-of-pack-nutrition-labeling systems, despite its flaws, and use it for their marketing choices. Therefore, in my view, the apparent aim of the complainants is to have Nutri-Score removed from Italian shelves before consumers get used and attached to it".
Irreconcilable rifts in Europe?
Bucchini added that the AGCM investigation highlights the perhaps irreconcilable "fundamental disagreement" between supporters and opponents of Nutri-Score. “The AGCM does not seem to consider that the main aim of Nutri-Score is to allow comparison between products in the same category, where using 100g as the reference quantify makes sense," he said.
Proponents, he added, backed by the international scientific community, believe that dietary intakes of certain nutrients "should be changed by increasing dietary intake of healthy nutrients and decreasing the intake of the unhealthy ones". Opponents, though "believe that dietary intake of nutrients does not need to change, with no need for reformulation or changes in dietary choices. They claim such changes are not useful for tackling health issues. So the disagreement is about ends, not only means."
He fears the rift could even lead to dual systems in the “for” and “against” countries.
For instance, Czechia's agricultural ministry has just revealed it's against Nutri-Score. According to the ministry, Nutri-Score is too simplistic because it does not consider the size of portion and general food composition and could also discriminate against "quality and traditional food".
Bucchini identified that some food businesses are starting to ponder new formulations with less fat, salt and sugars, and more fibre and fruit for the "Nutri-Score markets", while retaining fats, salt and sugars in products for markets, such as Italy, which reject Nutri-Score. "One possible scenario is that in a reverse of the dual quality debate, this split is enshrined in EU law as we go forward, opening up diversification opportunities in health-mindful countries and in the indulgent ones” he observed.
Dr. Christofer Eggers, a Frankfurt-based food and drink lawyer, said "it is not realistic that the existing Nutri-Score will be rolled out across the whole EU". He added more will be known once the EFSA delivers its scientific opinion on Nutri-Score by March 2022.
"So far, Nutri-Score is implemented by six member states including France and Germany. However, another group, including Italy and Greece, oppose the Nutri-Score since these states believe that the typical Mediterranean diet based on olive oil is systematically disadvantaged by the system. Others still, including Poland and the EU Commission itself, are very skeptical," he revealed.
"The Commission will be presenting a new system in 2022. Initial Indications are that scientists propose to use the UK's Multiple Traffic Light System as a good compromise between the Nutri-Score and the Italian Nutrinform. The EFSA is working on a report to the Commission. Only after this is published, will the Commission start to discuss in detail. It is expected that there will be an EU-wide front of pack label, but it will not be the existing Nutri-Score”.
Nutri-Score: towards a further review of the algorithm?
In a recent interview with the French magazine "L'Usine Nouvelle", Serge Hercberg, Professor of Nutrition at the University of Sorbonne-Paris Nord and creator of the Nutri-Score, said that "nothing justifies the attacks on nutrition labeling that have been appearing in recent weeks, nor the demands of certain manufacturers to modify the Nutri-Score."
"After a four-year battle, the Nutri-Score has been fairly widely adopted in France [and in several EU countries]. Today, the debate is being taken to the European level with the European Commission's desire for mandatory harmonized nutritional labeling by the end of 2022. This project has woken up the lobbies, including in France, [and several industrial sectors (cheese producers, dairy industry, olive industry, etc.)] who feel threatened by this prospect. But there is no justification for their requests to bring in alterations."
Regarding the attacks that are multiplying against the Nutri-Score, Serge Hercberg pointed out that "the Nutri-Score has not invented anything. It is not a label, but a public health tool that provides consumers with nutritional data to improve their choices. Industry players are criticizing the Nutri-Score on the basis of economic factors. But they are forgetting the role of scientific literature, which evaluates the impact on obesity, cancers and heart attacks of products that contain too much fat, sugars or salt. Furthermore, it is important to remember that the Nutri-Score rating does not amount to a ban. It does not mean that the lowest ranked foods should never be eaten. But it does serve as a reminder that they should be consumed less frequently, for example."
In response to criticism from some sectors, particularly the dairy industry, that certain nutrients are not sufficiently taken into account in the current algorithm, the creator of the Nutri-Score said that "the Nutri-Score formula has already been modified to take into account the specific characteristics of cheeses. According to the original formula, they were all classified as E because of their salt, fat and calorie content. We have updated the algorithm to take into account protein intake, especially because it allows consumers to absorb iron and calcium, which are nutrients that are beneficial to health. In changing the formula, the aim was not to satisfy the industry, but to avoid all products being considered in the same category, and therefore to facilitate consumer choice. As a result, today we have only 10% of cheeses in E, while most are in D and some in C.
It is also true that proteins are only taken into account up to 8 grams... That is because beyond that, they do not contribute anything, nutritionally speaking. Furthermore, it is important to reiterate that the advantages of some products should not make us forget their drawbacks. Just because a product contains protein does not mean it is any less salty and fatty."
Finally, Prof. Hercberg totally refutes the argument that the standard 100 g portion is not representative. For him, the criticism is completely unjustified, insofar as "it is the manufacturers who set the portions and obviously they set them at a particularly low threshold. When you see 30 grams of breakfast cereal listed, it's not realistic. The WHO recommends using 100 grams as a reference. This helps to establish a common denominator. The aim is not to recommend or discourage the ingestion of 100 grams of a particular product, but to use this portion as a basis of evaluation for the consumer to make a comparison."
Sources: foodnavigator.com, usinenouvelle.com
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