EU-wide labelling scheme decision pushed forward to 2023 as Commission admits ‘complex’ situation

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Stadtratte
Image: Getty/Stadtratte

Related tags nutri-score Nutrition labeling Nutritional labelling front-of-pack labelling FOP

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 harmonised 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 European Parliament roundtable debate on Wednesday (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 NutrInform 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 responce, a European Commission spokesperson told FoodNavigator: “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.”

Jindřich Fialka, Deputy Minister of Agriculture from the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU, told the European Parliament roundtable 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 harmonisation of nutritional FOP labelling, with several in favour of a mandatory scheme.  

But there was acknowledgement that SMEs should be protected from new obligations during an “energy and economic 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 harmonised 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 harmonised 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 it’s 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 Nestlé 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 NutrInform 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 sysyem, 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 told FoodNavigator: “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.”

The 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) NutrInform 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 individual who will be consuming it.”

Carla Valeiras, from the European consumer association SAFE (Safe Food Advocacy Europe), and supporter of a harmonised FOP label rollout, highlighted the key findings of their recent report on the main voluntary nutrition labelling schemes in use in Europe and around the world: “Noncommunicable diseases and obesity due to unhealthy eating habits are a serious problem for modern 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, told us the event  contained "all the ususal 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 Nutri-Score with a total negation of the science (more than 110 papers published in peer review journals)." 

He further compained 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."

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