Five minutes with European Snacks Association's chief: Discussing SNACKEX, EU elections, the Green Deal and UPFs

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Sebastian Emig. Pic: ESA
Sebastian Emig. Pic: ESA

Related tags European Snacks Association SNACKEX European commission elections Green Deal ultra processed food Sustainability Savoury snacks Packaging Nutrition

The format of SNACKEX 2024 has changed; the European Commission elections are expected to make an impact on the savory snacks sector, particularly the Green Deal, and tarring snacks with the UPF brush remains as controversial as ever. We chat to Sebastian Emig, director general of the European Snacks Association to find out more.

I’m sure arrangements for SNACKEX are well under way, please could you tell me what visitors can expect this year?

We expect about 3,500+ attendees from all across EU and the world.

We are very proud to keep the target audience very niche and on-point because this is where the quality of the show lies and hence everyone from the savory snacks and nuts industry is expected: both snack makers and snack industry suppliers alike, and also traders, distributors, retailers and so on.

Thanks to this particular aspect of the show, more than 85% of our exhibitors are visitors are returning ones.

You have dropped the conference part of the show: can you explain why?

SNACKEX has always been mainly a tradeshow and by dropping the separate conference, we basically answered to the exhibitors’ requests who want all visitors on the show floor at all times.

Organized by the European Snacks Association (ESA), SNACKEX 2024 is taking place at Stockholmsmassan in Stockholm, Sweden, on 19-20 June.

In reality, we have moved the old conference sessions and combined them into the Snack Science Hub Program, which is to be found at the heart of the show floor and is open to all visitors and exhibitors alike.

We feel that this way we condense the current topics into one good program that is meant to answer to all snack making challenges while proposing best practice from industry leading players. This is what exhibitors and visitors are interested in most.

Why Stockholm?

Sweden and the Nordic countries are pioneers when it comes to everything that has to do with sustainability​ and snacks are no exception.

Whenever we look at most innovative, better-for-you raw material choices or cuttingedge snack processing techniques, we look at the Nordics. They are a trendsetter.

The next European Parliament elections​ are expected to take place in June. How will these impact the food industry and more specifically, the savory snacks sector?

We are looking with deep interest in the election projections and what we see is the Greens will lose a lot of seats.

This will, however, not affect our members investments in sustainable sourcing, production and sales. On the contrary, only sustainable growth makes sense and we will continue down this path.

We might see more than 60% new Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and this gives us a great opportunity to advise these new policymakers about the success and ongoing challenges in our sector when it comes to nutrition and health.

Afterall, a snack is a snack and not a main meal.

What are the priorities for ESA for the new political cycle?

EU elections and snacks Getty
Pic: GettyImages

As mentioned above, first and foremost is creating awareness of our industry and its topics, how we tackle those and where legislation can be helpful and where self-regulation is more effective.

Besides creating awareness and setting ESA as a trusted stakeholder at the relevant negotiation tables, we will continue working strongly on sustainable production, especially in light of food security for the European Union.

The Single Market is a great – yet for the time being, an under-used tool – that can help our countries become more resilient and independent from developments that are out of our control but deeply impact our industry.

Are there any emerging issues or controversies that stakeholders in the savory snacks sector should be aware of?

I believe we will see a lot of discoveries in terms of pesticides and process contaminants in the next few years, with the refining of detection methods.

Key here is not to knee-jerk into setting regulation, but to create a sensible and science-based policymaking standard that takes into account food safety, market realities and commonsense.

In your opinion, what impact might the election results have on EU-UK negotiations and future cooperation?

Hard to say. I would estimate that with Europe and the hopeful strengthening of the Single Market, the decisionmakers will look for cooperation outside of Europe but not at all costs.

If you want to trade with Europe, the criteria will be tight and less permeable. 

There is a lot of focus of late on UPFs – how is this impact the savory snacking sector?

‘Ultra-processed food’ is not a term that is useful in describing or classifying our members’ products. Moreover, there is no legal definition of ‘ultra-processed food’ at the EU or global level.

On the contrary, many in the scientific and nutrition community point out significant limitations in the use of ‘ultra-processed foods’ terminology. To that end, recent government dietary advice in the UK and Nordic countries steered clear of using the concept.

Whilst recent research shows some debatable ideas, there are many question marks about the different definitions used, the quality of the data, models used, assumptions made and therefore the validity of the findings.

Classifying foods simply based on the level of processing and number of ingredients – and not the nutrient content of the food – demonizes a large and diverse range of foods, including our snacks, which can all play a valid role in a healthy balanced diet.

ESA members produce a wide range of products, from hand-cooked potato crisps and more complex products such as extruded and pelleted snacks to popcorn and snack nuts. These products vary in their level of processing, their ingredients and their nutrient contents. They include numerous products successfully reformulated over the past years to meet consumers’ ever-evolving and high expectations.

Do UPF snacks contribute to issues such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and plastic waste?

Snacks footprint Getty
Pic: GettyImages

Growing sustainably makes good business sense: It is key to savory snack companies’ long-term competitiveness.

Our members strive to continuously improve their environmental sustainability and use sustainable practices to protect and promote natural resources, also aiming at securing key raw materials for the manufacture of savory snacks in the future.

ESA members have implemented innovative solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taking energy efficiency measures such as upgrading energy equipment, improving logistics and transport within the value chain, using alternative energy sources to fossil fuel-based energy and increasing the use of renewable energy sources.

Moving towards a more responsible use of natural resources and a circular economy also means that manufacturers are striving to find innovative solutions for more sustainable packaging and improved waste sorting and recycling.

Packaging plays a key role in guaranteeing a high level of quality and safety of our products and in preventing food waste.

As a major user of flexible packaging, the European savory snacks industry stives to improve the circularity and environmental performance of its packaging, while ensuring material functionality and protection of health, safety and the environment.

ESA members have already come forward with ambitious commitments and are engaged in a number of initiatives aiming at:

  • Further reducing plastics in their packaging, integrating recycled plastics
  • Developing new packaging design, working towards making material easier to recycle
  • Stimulating research and innovation in packaging material and recycling technologies such as chemical recycling
  • Improving collection, sorting and recycling of flexible packaging together with competent authorities and the plastic value chain

What advice are you giving your members to overcome these pressures?

Members have been working for years now on addressing sustainability challenges throughout all their operations.

ESA’s role is:

to inform members on the what’s coming next so they can stay ahead of the curve and anticipate the changes. The regulatory framework, especially on the sustainability side, is evolving quickly and the more they can anticipate the better it is;

and weight on the legislative process so the new rules/obligations/requirements are science-based, proportionate and supporting the competitiveness of the sector and the food and drink industry at large.

On a more general note, we do encourage members to collaborate with other actors of the food chain in order to find the best synergies and unleash snacks manufacturers’ full potential to support the transition to more sustainable food systems.

We believe that being transparent and honest about its sustainability journey is absolutely fundamental for members. We also invite them to communicate to the world all the good things they do!

This brings us to the European Green Deal – can you briefly remind my readers what the main objectives are?

The Green Deal is a package of political initiatives transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, with one clear target: the continent is climate neutral by 2050.

A European ‘man on the moon’ moment, according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen when she presented the strategy in 2019.

Europe’s new growth strategy touches upon all sectors of the economy: Environment, energy, transport, industry, agriculture (Farm to Fork), sustainable finance, etc.

Built as the backbone of VDL mandate, the Green Deal resulted in nearly 60 sectoral or transversal legislation. As the European elections approach, detractors of the Green Deal have become more and more virulent, with some even predicting its death.

If three quarters of the texts announced in 2019 were actually adopted, eight never saw the light of day or were withdrawn by the Commission. Above all, the finding hides large sectoral disparities.

Legislation concerning energy or transport, presented in the first half of the mandate, has generally been completed. Legislative proposals targeting agriculture, but also biodiversity or chemical pollution show a much more mixed record.

Only a third of the initiatives promised to green agricultural practices have been implemented. These texts – like the regulation for the restoration of nature – have borne the brunt of increasingly virulent attacks against the Green Deal.

How is ESA involved in shaping the Green Deal?

We support the overall objectives of the Green Deal and have been directly involved in several initiatives, such as obviously the Farm to Fork Strategy and the New Circular Economy Action Plan.

This has pretty much structured the work of ESA over the past few years. It all started with a mapping of all relevant initiatives and a priority setting exercise.

We have been involved, for instance, since the beginning of the process in the revision of the packaging and packaging waste rules across the bloc.

The Regulation, which has been recently adopted, required a lot of work from our members and the secretariat, but we are overall satisfied with the outcome and hope it will help building a real circular economy for snacks packaging, especially for flexibles formats.

We also actively took part in the creation of the EU Code of Conduct for Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices, which was one of the key projects of the Farm to Fork Strategy.

We are also a member of the Advisory Group on Sustainability of Food Systems: A tool the European Commission uses in order to consult in an open and transparent way to all relevant stakeholders on issues relating to the implementation of the Farm to Fork Strategy and food systems’ sustainability.

Last year, Sandy Iagallo took on the role of ESA president – can you briefly highlight some of the milestones you’ve achieved together since her appointment?

ESA Sandy Iagallo

Sandy was pivotal in bringing ESA forward and in the name of the team, I want to thank her for her great advice, support and energy!

To give you a few cornerstones:

In January, we published the first ESA Sustainability report, which demonstrates the savory snacks sector’s commitment to support the transition to sustainable food systems.

In March, we issued our position on the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation Publication, including the sector’s main concerns and proposals for a truly circular economy for packaging.

In May, we published the ESA monitoring report to the EU Code of Conduct for Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices, which highlights the sector’s contribution to building a more sustainable food system.

In June, ESA formatted and submitted over 27,500 results for acrylamide in sliced potato crisps​ to the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) as part of its annual call for data.

In September ESA organised a meeting with the European Commission on food safety to discuss the latest developments on the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF)

Besides all of this, we organized two very successful snack education courses for members and non-members and hosted the 8th​ edition of Share a Snack in Brussels, ESA’s flagship event with an interactive event and plenty of tasty savory snacks for visitors to enjoy.

Getting back to SNACKEX, what is your takeaway message?

Given that the tradeshow is a biannual one, we really want to showcase that this industry has advanced a lot from two years ago. We want for all players to thrive while creating the snack sector that manages to combine very successfully indulgence and sustainability.

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