Food labelling dilemmas in EU risk misleading consumers and marring progress

After greenlighting two new insect ingredients as safe food sources in January, the European Commission has confirmed that it will not propose a mandatory label for insect-based products, an announcement likely to send the misinformation machine into overdrive.

The months following Brussels’ approval of dried yellow mealworm larvae and cricket powder – billed as greener alternatives to meat protein – have seen the spread of patently false claims, both from social media charlatans and even mainstream politicians, that the EU intends to sneak insects into the food of Europeans, or worse, that this move is part of a diabolical population culling conspiracy.

Contrary to these allegations, insect’s common name and an allergy warning will be included on packaging, with EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides explaining that a dedicated insect label is not in the cards because “the existing legal framework ensures that consumers are informed about the content of the food.”

Yet – populist, eurosceptic fearmongering aside – the Commission’s relatively relaxed labelling approach for foods that most Europeans have expressed an aversion to consuming does raise questions, particularly considering its decidedly assertive stance for other food packaging labels, whose proliferation in areas including nutritional health and sustainability risks misleading consumers while undermining their stated goals.

Healthy food label losing legitimacy

The most publicised and politicised of these has undoubtedly been the front-of-package (FOP) nutrition label that Brussels plans to impose bloc-wide as part of its anti-obesity crusade. This harmonised label, intended to promote dietary health via simplified nutritional guidance, would replace the multiple existing labels already in supermarkets on a voluntary basis in countries across the continent.

Of these, France’s Nutri-Score system has been particularly polarising. With its colour and letter-based grading system, Nutri-Score’s backers often highlight its user-friendliness, yet on the flipside of this apparent asset lies the system’s greatest flaw: its algorithm. By evaluating nutritional value based on a standardised 100ml/g portion size and placing a disproportionate focus on ingredients deemed “unhealthy” in the absolute – namely salt, sugar and fats – Nutri-Score’s algorithm fails to adequately account for moderate consumption and broader nutritional benefits of foods high in these components.

Professor Phillipe Legrand, a leading French nutritionist, has notably criticised Nutri-Score’s treatment of fats as scientifically “outdated” – resulting in olive oil initially receiving a damning “D” score despite its well-documented health benefits – while questioning the system’s underlying philosophy of condemning “food a priori rather than trying to educate the eater.”

While the Nutri-Score’s algorithm latest update will see olive oil move up to the light-green “B,” the fact that it has had to be revised multiple times raises serious questions over its credibility for consumers. Moreover, if “numerous scientific studies performed over many years…validate the algorithm…and its effectiveness to help consumers make healthier food choices,” as Nutri-Score’s creator, Professor Serge Hercberg, recently claimed, why does it require regular alterations?

Eco-label boom tarred by greenwashing

Yet nutrition labels are not the only ones causing headaches for Brussels. With consumer eco-consciousness on the rise in recent years, a 2021 European Citizens’ Initiative called on the Commission to propose an EU “Eco-Score” label in a similar vein to the colour-coded Nutri-Score to improve consumer awareness on food’s environmental impact.

While Brussels’ anticipated food labelling proposal does not include an eco-label, it is preparing separate legislative proposals on sustainable labelling principles and substantiating green claims amid a proliferation of dubious privately-developed labels, which number over 230 in the EU market alone – many of which have come under fire for greenwashing and misleading consumers.

According to a Commission study, 40% of company’s green claims are “completely unsubstantiated,” while over 50% make “vague, misleading or unfounded” claims. This assessment of widespread greenwashing is shared by leading organic agriculture advocacy NGO, IFOAM Europe, with president Jan Plagge arguing that labelling schemes like the Eco-score contribute” to the problem. IFOAM has highlighted Eco-Score labels’ flawed methodology that fails to consider “many externalities linked to food production system,” resulting in deceptively positive scores for intensive agriculture that risk undermining the sustainable transition.

And while the Commission has recognised the methodological shortcomings of existing systems, its forthcoming proposals may not go far enough. Environmental NGOs have expressed disappointment at Brussels’ decision to abstain from proposing a single EU-wide set of criteria for green claims, which they fear will allow companies to “cherry-pick” methodologies favourable to their products, while making it impossible to compare eco labels across the bloc, thus doing little to tackle consumer confusion.

Beyond the dead end

The numerous walls that food labels have encountered suggest that they are of highly questionable use in building a healthier and more sustainable European food system.

Their failure is perhaps inevitable, as they aim to accurately convey highly complex processes in simplistic, evaluative labels that consistently fail to incorporate all relevant factors. And if the EU were to impose a label of sufficient complexity and scientific rigour, it would be excessively difficult for consumers to read and understand, thus defeating its purpose. Such is the catch-22 of many FOP labels.

What citizens need is empowering education and resources for adopting healthy, sustainable lifestyles. In terms of nutritional health, the EU could work with national and local-level policymakers to scale up access to cooking and nutrition classes, which could have a particularly strong impact if targeted in low-income communities and food deserts, where residents face a disproportionate risk of obesity.

Staying on the local theme, mobilising land-use planning to ramp up urban farming, as Deloitte rightly recommends, would allow residents to eat more locally-produced food, slashing the built-in transport emissions of imported food. Moreover, public investment in geographically-inclusive local food markets would facilitate broad access to low-carbon food, particularly if combined with healthy food vouchers to compensate for higher prices.

All of these interventions would have a more direct impact. Moving forward, the EU should be cautious about the unintended consequences of FOP food label proliferation. While the recent insect labelling conundrum has clearly been blown out of proportion, the unreliable nature of other labels has done little to inspire broader consumer confidence. And if consumers cannot trust or gain reliable information from food labels, they will clearly fail in advancing health and sustainability agendas.

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