EU food label up for grabs as final decision approaches

Several years in the making, the battle over an EU-wide food label is entering its final stages. According to EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides, food products sold across the bloc will soon be marked with a standardised, pan-European Front-of-Package (FOP) label.

Up until now, the France-backed Nutri-Score had been considered one of the candidates. However, following the recent Future of Food Summit, it has become clear that the Commission is unlikely to recommend this system as the go-to label. Indeed, during the summit, the deputy director for food sustainability at the Commission’s DG SANTE, Claire Bury, left little room for doubt, saying that “it won’t be Nutri-Score,” and that the Commission is “looking at a range of different evaluative schemes,” and weighing “the advantages of each.”

With this heavy blow to a system once considered a virtual shoo-in, the competition has been blown wide open, making the exact form of an eventual bloc-wide FOP label far from clear. But this unexpected development in the FOP saga confirms that the flawed Nutri-Score is a far cry from the rounded solution for healthier food choices that its supporters have made it out to be, contradicting the countries already using it on a voluntary basis.

Origins of a doomed system

For years, Nutri-Score has been the darling of Europe’s heightening food labelling contest. Originally developed in France and now managed by Belgian retailing giant Colruyt Group, the system has already been adopted by several European countries, including France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands, who have long pushed for Nutri-Score to become the healthy food pillar of the EU’s “Farm to Form” strategy. And just last year, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) voiced its support, calling on the EU Commission to introduce Nutri-Score on a mandatory basis throughout Europe.

Like all FOP labelling systems, Nutri-Score aims to provide shoppers with quick nutritional information to support healthy dietary choices – in its particular case by assessing the sugar, fat and salt content of products per 100g/ml serving on a sliding, five-point scale. Products marked with a dark green “A” are deemed most favourable for consumers’ diets, while those labelled with a yellow “C” to a red “E” are considered least favourable. Yet Nutri-Score’s fundamental flaws undermine its attempt to improve public health in Europe amid a rising obesity epidemic.

Misleading consumers and hurting local producers

While Stella Kyriakides has praised the efforts of individual countries in deploying FOP labels until now, she has equally warned that the use of disparate labels has increased business costs and led to confusion among consumers.

Italy’s Competition Authority (AGCM), for example, recently found Nutri-Score to have an undue “bias in judgement” preventing consumers from making well-informed food choices. According to the AGCM, Nutri-Score’s arbitrary classification of food content fails to help consumers make an adequate assessment to ensure the appropriate daily intake of nutrients based on “the needs and nutritional profile of the individual.” What’s more, the authority has targeted Nutri-Score’s baseless use of a 100g/ml portion size rather than appropriate servings tailored to specific foods.

Other experts have also criticised the algorithm’s wider flaws, including Nutri-Score’s “spot blindness” toward processed foods. This is due to Nutri-Score’s failure to factor sweeteners like glucose-fructose syrup, or other additives commonly used in processed foods, in its calculations. It is this omission that sees powdered chocolate awarded the same nutritional rating as a tub of hummus.

This same reductionist quality of Nutri-Score’s algorithm results in Mediterranean staples like parmigiano, parma ham, olive oil and wine receiving unfairly negative scores. Despite being made without unhealthy additives found in mass-produced packaged food products, these products are typically marked with “C” to “E” labels on account of their salt and sugar content, regardless of the recommended intake for individual products, needlessly discouraging consumers while putting local producers at a severe competitive disadvantage.

Playing catch-up with science

Nutri-Score’s skewed evaluation of Mediterranean products is out of step with scientific research, which widely supports the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. As Pietro Paganini, President of the European sustainability think tank Competere has indicated, “over the years, science has highlighted the importance of wine within a balanced diet,” which is “included in the nutritional regime considered-scientifically-among the healthiest in the world, the Mediterranean Diet.” Simply put, the inability of Nutri-Score’s algorithm to capture the broader nutritional benefits of the Mediterranean diet makes it an unsuitable system for Europe.

Alarmingly, its algorithm has even had to be updated to bring it somewhat in line with proper dietary guidelines. Last month, Nutri-Score’s Scientific Committee proposed a better classification of plant-based oils like olive, walnut, and rapeseed. Despite being lower in saturated fats than their counterparts, these oils currently hold the same low Nutri-Score grading. Nutri-Score’s Committee also agreed to reconsider the algorithm’s evaluation of certain fatty fish, as well as the need for more differentiation between whole grain fibre-rich foods and refined foods, with a similar revision for Nutri-Score’s evaluation of beverages expected by the end of the year. Even so, the move to broaden Nutri-Score’s algorithm may prove to be too little, too late with the Commission’s decision rapidly approaching.

On the back of the European Commission’s latest comments, it is clear that the European FOP label debate is looking at a reset of sorts. While some aspects of Nutri-Score may be retained in a future standardised label, there can be no doubt that the final result needs to be a far more credible and useful alternative for consumers.

Image: Jo Zimny Photos/Flickr

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