Food labelling: France’s Roquefort joins chorus of European food producers against Nutri-Score

According to the makers of France’s beloved Roquefort cheese, something is rotten in the département of Aveyron. Specifically, the prospect of having a bright red label warning consumers away from their legendary cheese has the producers behind Roquefort up in arms. With the support of political figures such as French MP Stéphane Mazars and Italian MEP Paolo De Castro, the Confederation of Roquefort producers is officially calling for their millenia-old product to be exempted from the Nutri-Score front-of-pack nutritional label (FOPNL), adopted by the French government in 2017 and now gunning for adoption across the whole of the European Union as part of the Farm to Fork package (F2F).

The concerns of these producers pivot on the fact Nutri-Score assigns Roquefort cheese the lowest score, a dark red “E”, based on its fat and salt content. Roquefort is only the latest in a long line of time-honoured European food industries to request an exemption from Nutri-Score on this basis, though it is one of the first from within France. In neighbouring Spain and Italy, the makers of Manchego cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Grana Padano have also cried foul, as have scores of producers of single-ingredient foods such as olive oil, honey, and meat products such as the Spanish jamòn iberico.

These products may vary widely in their nutritional value and typical serving sizes, but all have one point in common: while the recipes of industrial food products can be adapted to achieve a better Nutri-Score, the makers of many traditional European foodstuffs – and particularly those with protected designations of origin (PDO) such as Roquefort – cannot modify their production methods even if they wanted to. With the reputations of their high-quality products at stake, a growing number of European food producers are thus joining the battle against Nutri-Score.

Red lights for PDOs, green lights for French fries

As a “traffic light” style label, Nutri-Score uses an algorithm to amalgamate the nutritional information of a given food, namely energy density, sodium, (saturated) fats, and sugars per 100ml or 100g serving, and assign it a colour and a letter grade. Critics of Nutri-Score argue this system benefits processed products whose composition can be modified to achieve a higher Nutri-Score, since the label fails to consider the extent to which a food product has been transformed. The score of Nestle’s Chocapic cereal, for example, improved to a B grade when Nestle reduced the sugar content, even though a 30g serving of the “ultra-processed” product still contains 30% of the daily recommended limit for added sugar for children.

Fast food chains such as McDonald’s and KFC have helped fuel these allegations by rolling out the Nutri-Score label across their French branches this year, with surprising grades given to some of their most iconic products. Nutri-Score creator Serge Hercberg justified the B grade awarded to McDonald’s “World Famous Fries,” for example, by stating that they have “a correct nutritional composition, contrary to their negative image in the collective imagination, where they are associated with fast food and junk food.”

Roquefort makers would argue their product, rich in calcium and protein alongside key vitamins like Vitamin A, B2, and B12, is more nutritious than McDonald’s fries. Arguing last week that Nutri-Score is “paradoxical” in its apparent encouragement of consuming ultra-processed foods, they fear being branded with a such a poor Nutri-Score could dissuade consumers from purchasing their famed blue cheese, damaging both local sales as well as exports despite their emblematic status within French gastronomy.

The president of the departmental council of Sud-Averyon, Jean-François Galliard, took the region’s concerns directly to French minister of agriculture Julien Denormandie in a letter published in June, arguing that “Roquefort, like all products with a quality label, is also an excellent ambassador… Beyond that, it will be all our PDO and PGI products that will be affected, and therefore agriculture and also gastronomy, this notion that is so inherently French and envied throughout the world.”

Blue cheese is, after all, a key part of the gastronomic heritage of not only France, but the whole of Europe, according to a recent discovery of Penicillium roqueforti cheese fungi in a 2,700 year-old fossil.

Italy’s Nutrinform Battery challenges Nutri-Score

The damaging Nutri-Score grade assigned to Roquefort is par for the course for European cheesemakers, with D grades shared by 80% of all cheeses. And it’s not just cheesemakers speaking out: products such as extra virgin olive oil, the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, are assigned the same grade as diet soft drinks and tomato ketchup, despite the fact these products are generally consumed in quantities smaller than 100g. These equivalencies are pushing many European producers to decry the French system, even in countries where their own governments have endorsed it.

Not that all EU states agree with the French approach. A coalition of countries including Italy alongside Greece, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Cyprus, and Romania formed last year to oppose the idea underpinning Nutri-Score, insisting instead that any FOPNL used across Europe should be “informative and not prescriptive” and that is “should not provide an overall evaluation of a specific food.”

Siding with its cheesemakers, farmers, and olive oil producers, the Italian government has put forward an alternative label, the Nutrinform Battery, which uses a neutral blue colour and five battery symbols to separately display the percentage of energy, fats, sugars, and sodium contained in a real portion of a food product compared to recommended daily values. According to its supporters, the Italian label does not attempt to persuade consumers in a particular direction. Instead, it tries to aid them in constructing a balanced diet by illustrating relevant nutritional information for a given food.

With the European Commission set to recommend a bloc-wide FOPNL by 2022, the race is on for contenders such as Nutri-Score and the Nutrinform Battery to demonstrate they can contribute to EU public health objectives without harming key pillars of the European food and agricultural sectors. As lawmakers in Brussels take up this question, Aveyron’s Roquefort producers could soon make themselves heard at the Berlaymont as well.

Photo: Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Pexels

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