Beer boss: ‘Commission must bring NGOs back into the EU Alcohol Forum’

Pierre-Olivier Bergeron: "beer is back”. [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The dialogue between the beer industry and civil society organisations continues, despite health NGOs leaving the European Commission-backed EU Alcohol Forum, says Pierre-Olivier Bergeron.

Pierre-Olivier Bergeron is the Secretary General of the Brewers of Europe, which  brings together national brewers’ associations from 29 European countries.

He spoke with EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

How has the brewing sector been affected by the economic crisis? Do you see signs of recovery?

Yes, we do see signs of recovery. To such an extent, that I can make use of the expression “beer is back”.

In fact, there are several developments. One is that overall the sector has been pretty resilient ever since the crisis started. But, there was a bit of a shock between 2007-2010 (when consumption declined by 8% across the EU), some relatively positive signs between 2010-2013, with increased exports also helping to bolster the sector, and a definite indication of recovery since 2013-2014.

If you look at the outlook of the brewing sector in the EU the period 2008-2012, Central and Eastern Europe was particularly hit.

Why?

It’s an interesting region per se, a region where international companies invested massively and they had a lot of work to do as the brewing sector was a heritage from the former regimes and the state of brewing was not that brilliant and modernised.

Then, the purchasing power in this region was hit due to the crisis. So, one could see that from the start of the enlargement process until the crisis, the brewing sector had been flourishing in very significant rates.

But after the crisis, we identified that the purchasing power was severely hit and households had to make choices.

It is interesting to focus on the period 2013 until today. The signs of recovery are visible if you take into account the whole value chain, from supply to consumption. In addition, taking employment as an indicator, there have been positive developments in the hospitality sector.

If you consider the full value chain, today we can claim that one job in the brewing sector generates up to two jobs in the supply sector (agriculture, equipment), then the retail also up to two jobs, and in the pubs, cafés, and restaurants, the number of jobs generated by one job in a brewery is up to 13 jobs.

In a few words, one job in the brewery generates about 17 jobs and this makes a figure of 2.3 million jobs in Europe that can be attributed to beer.

How is the process of updating nutrition labels going? You took some initiative on nutrition information and ingredients last year. What is the current state-of-play?

Indeed, we took a bold initiative in March 2015. It was a commitment strongly supported by our board, which by the way is composed of an equal number of big and small brewery companies.

We did not start from scratch. Because beer in more than half of member states already indicated ingredients on either a voluntary or regulatory basis. When we took this commitment there were already three member states which had commitments on nutrition labeling ― Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Our vision was to finish this job. We feel comfortable with informing consumers and are also as brewers proud of our products.

Now, we have a timeline which suggests that by the end of 2017, over half of the market will have been covered. Almost 50-55% of the beer brewed in the EU will carry information on ingredient and nutrition. It will carry information to a very large extent on the label and in some cases the label information will be complemented with online information.

We have always said that if we want to embark smaller brewers on this, we have to allow them to provide this information not necessarily on the label but also through online platforms.

Did you do that for reasons related to costs?

Yes, there is the cost element, as for smaller companies the cost is higher. But also, we wanted to leave this door open to smaller operators also because information platforms evolve in such a way that consumers increasingly rely on them.

What is interesting is that a big part of the market will go for the label as such. On nutritional information, the EU regulation indicates that you are not obliged to label all seven pieces of nutrition information; you have to do that on calories and opt for other values on online platforms.

My understanding is that Heineken, ABInBev, Carlsberg and SAB Miller will go for the label. In addition, we followed our consumers on that. We asked GFK to engage consumers in nine EU countries and it found out that there was an interest to have access to information. This is even an increase of the percentages asking for this information when GfK surveyed them last year.

Across Europe, 86% of consumers are definitely interested in information on nutrition and the same percentage wants to be aware of the ingredients.

Health NGOs have left the Commission’s Alcohol Forum. But is the industry still in touch with them?

Interestingly enough, there is a dialogue but outside the forum. One example is the consumer information initiative. When I announced the commitment in 2015, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) was in the room together with the European Alcohol Policy Alliance (Eurocare). Particularly, Eurocare publicly said that it had been asking for it for years and finally the brewery industry initiated it.

The decision of the NGOs not to continue in the forum was a gesture toward the European Commission itself, not the industry.

Door open for health NGOs to rejoin EU alcohol forum

The European Commission is exploring ways to bring back health organisations to its alcohol policy forum, in light of recent reports suggesting a decrease in underage drinking across Europe.

So, there is still communication with the NGOs.

Yes, but it is not structured. The Commission must change its mind and bring the NGOs back to the table.

The Forum started in 2007, so 6 months after the adoption of the Alcohol Strategy. The last meeting was in 2014, where Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis came and said, “I am not obsessed with the reshuffle of the alcohol strategy with dates and deadlines in the text […] let’s continue with the instruments that we have”.

NGOs disagreed and asked for a renewal of the strategy.

Our position is that the 2006-2012 strategy has delivered. For example, the recent ESPAD report, which covered 30 countries showed a clear decline in underage drinking and heavy episodic drinking. It’s more than anecdotal that this trend has happened exactly in the period where the alcohol strategy was fully functional with the Forum not just a ‘talk show’ but a table with concrete commitments. Please also note that in the last decade, drink driving fatalities have also nearly halved (police enforcement, awareness campaigns).

In an ideal world, we would like to see this Forum work again because there were ideas that became concrete actions in a number of member states. The ball is in the court of the Commission.

What would you suggest?

There is room for dialogue between the stakeholders, the European Commission should say “let’s focus on the trend of constantly decreasing underage drinking and discuss more concrete mutually agreed objectives, such as making sure minors do not have access to alcohol etc.”

It has to be a collaborative approach. Municipalities, civil society, police, the hospitality sector should all be involved.

Is the Commission’s proposal on alcohol advertising sufficient for protecting minors? Health NGOs claim it’s not. 

What is clear in the Commission’s proposal is the complementarity between regulation and (self) co-regulation is recognised. This practically means, setting a regulatory framework within which flexible, fast, culturally relevant systems can then operate effectively.

In the case of alcohol advertising, in some member states it’s extremely regulated and some others it’s less. What the Commission says is that it has sufficient data that complementarity between regulation and self-regulation can work. I think that some health NGOs criticise the boldness of the Commission’s proposal, but this is mainly a lack of understanding of what exactly self-regulation is. Either they don’t understand or don’t want to understand.

But self-regulation is not a free ride: not only strict codes are in place but these codes are operating within robust, effective and credible systems. It covers pre-clearing through committees early in the process that can identify, judge and advise on the acceptability of beer advertisements before consumer complaints are received and even before the advertisements appear in public. It also includes a checklist for companies, highlighting the different focal points that a company needs to be aware of when outlining a marketing scheme, involving the local self-regulatory organisation. Training also is a key area on which companies and associations have been working. As a result, advertising in general, and for alcohol beverages in particular, has profoundly changed for the better over the past decade.

It’s something which is framed and the Commission was quite helpful back in 2007 when, also through the Forum, it set a number of principles. We find the Commission proposal balanced as part of the impact assessment was also the perception of consumers about advertisements and it showed that they complain less and less.

When I joined the brewing sector perhaps there were good claims from the NGOs, that the content of advertising could be questioned. But today, the overall situation is improved, one does not find complaints on the content of advertising because a significant job was done.

Health NGOs: Commission ‘listened’ to industry on alcohol advertising

A new European Commission proposal to reform advertising rules on television and online has opened a new battlefield for health NGOs, advertisers and the alcohol industry.

 

But the NGOs focus on the exposure.    

I find it a very slippery debate, critics have moved on now. They see that the content of the advertising conforms to the standards.

What is exactly exposure? I’m exposed to air, to carbon dioxide outside, to my phone etc. What’s important is that advertising is done responsibly, targeted at adults and shows a norm of responsible consumption by adults (LDA’s) and applies to all media indistinctively.

The review of the AVMS Directive [Audiovisual Media Services Directive] nevertheless looked at the exposure of alcohol advertising as a small part of the review and what this review showed is that drinks companies advertise around programmes targeted at adults and during the times when adults are mostly watching.

However, the review of the Directive is actually much broader, looking at how to ensure the laws on advertising are up-to-date with the media landscape and how people consume both media and advertising, which is very different from 10 years ago and potentially will be again different 10 years from now. This is what will be so important in the new Directive.