According to the World Health Organisation, unhealthy diets cause a whopping 11 million deaths each year and are linked with six of the top 10 risk factors for the global burden of disease.
And this problem is just set to worsen, with obesity and overweight already affecting one in three children in Europe.
In other words, while a spoonful of sugar might help the medicine go down, our food systems are making us sick.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly did little to help the situation.
For example, the WHO estimates that 370 million children lost access to school meals while an additional 118 million people became food insecure over the past 18 months.
So it’s only natural that access to a healthy diet has been placed front and centre of global food priorities, including in the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy.
To achieve this, the strategy acknowledges the strong influence that marketing and advertising strategies exert over children’s eating behaviours and promises to adapt this to the needs of the most vulnerable.
As it stands, there are currently no binding EU-wide rules to rein in food marketing to children.
Instead, the only safeguard is a voluntary initiative by major food companies – called the ‘EU pledge’ – to place their own restrictions on their marketing.
But this initiative is far from being perfect in any way, according to consumers’ organisation BEUC, whose recent study concluded that it “blatantly fails to protect European children from ads praising unhealthy foods”.
The study, carried out in the spring of 2021, warned that the nutritional criteria of the pledge were too weak but also that popular TV shows were slipping through the net, despite the huge rate of children in the audience.
“Rules underestimate the significant exposure and powerful marketing tactics used both in the digital and physical worlds,” the study concluded, adding that the EU Pledge complaint process is “too slow, obscure, inconsistent, and lenient” to have any real impact.
Monique Goyens, BEUC’s director-general, said that policymakers can “no longer bury their heads in the sand”, knowing the powerful influence of food advertisement on kids’ eating, coupled with an obesity epidemic.
“Unhealthy food marketing is only set to keep growing if we don’t put an end to it now. It is high time the EU got its act together and finally came up with rules with teeth,” she said.
Instead, the consumer group advocates for binding EU rules, including an online ban for the marketing of unhealthy food products, a 6am-11pm TV watershed, and a ban on the use of marketing techniques appealing to children on food packaging, including cartoon characters and brand mascots.
In other words, RIP Tony the Tiger.
Needless to say, the food industry doesn’t exactly see eye to eye on this.
“Contrary to BEUC’s assertion, the mechanism clearly does work,” FoodDrinkEurope, a confederation of Europe’s food industry, told EURACTIV, pointing out that the mechanism has delivered a “comprehensive ruling” on each complaint lodged so far, including 36 appeals by BEUC.
In the eight cases found to be in breach, advertisers took corrective action, the organisation pointed out, while in several other cases, changes were made although no breach of the EU Pledge commitment was established.
“The EU Pledge has a substantial, tangible impact,” a spokesperson for the association stressed, adding that it estimates that since 2005, the industry has halved children’s exposure to high fat, sugar or salt product advertising on TV.
And it doesn’t seem that the European Commission is looking to tighten rules on this any time soon either.
Asked whether it sees a need for binding EU rules on this matter, a Commission spokesperson declined to comment directly.
Instead, he pointed to the fact that it is too soon to tell the impact of the revised Audiovisual and Media Services Directive (AVMSD), which entered into force in 2017 and strengthens provisions on protecting children from inappropriate communications on unhealthy foods.
The Commission will “monitor closely the effective implementation of the directive” and is set to produce reports on its application and impact.
It will then offer any proposals for its review, where appropriate, “as mandated and obliged by the directive,” the spokesperson said.
It remains to be seen whether this will turn out to be one of Mary Poppins’ famous ‘piecrust promises’ – easily made, easily broken.
But one thing is for sure – this sugar-coating is unlikely to be enough to sweeten critics.
This week on the EURACTIV agrifood podcast, we hear reactions from MEP Bert-Jan Ruissen and rapporteur Herbert Dorfmann to the news that the European Commission chose to delay on the publication of their controversial JRC report on the impacts of the Farm to Fork strategy for half a year. We take a look at a leaked draft of the Commission’s 2022 work programme to see what’s on the menu for the agri sector, and we explore the sustainable use of water in the EU with the help of EURACTIV France’s Magdalena Pistorius.
Stories of the Week
Commission sat on Farm to Fork report for months, published quietly in August
The European Commission chose to delay for half a year the publication of its controversial report on the potential effects of the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, opting instead for a quiet mid-summer publication, according to documents seen by EURACTIV. Natasha Foote has more.
On EU Commission’s menu for agri in 2022: pesticides, carbon removal, packaging
The sustainable use of pesticides and a carbon removal certification scheme will be placed front and centre of the European Commission’s agricultural priorities next year, according to a leaked draft version of its 2022 work programme seen by EURACTIV. Learn more.
EU market protection, farmers’ income dominate French livestock summit talks
During France’s upcoming EU Council presidency, reciprocity will be the name of the game for its Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie, who took the opportunity during a recent agricultural summit to emphasise the importance of protecting the European market and farmers’ wages. EURACTIV France reports.
German agri minister slams Commission over trade agreement sustainability
German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner has urged the European Commission to insist on more consistent sustainability standards when negotiating future free trade agreements with third countries. Julia Dahm has more.
News from the bubble
AGRIFISH meeting: EU agriculture and fisheries ministers will meet in Luxembourg to discuss a number of matters in both the fisheries and agriculture domains next week. On the menu for discussion includes an agreement on the fishing opportunities for next year for the Baltic Sea, based on the proposal by the European Commission, and management of fish stocks between the EU and the UK. Ministers will also hold an exchange of views concerning the preparation of strategic plans, which are required under the new common agricultural policy 2023-2027. Ministers will also hold an exchange of views about the revision of EU marketing standards and the EU forestry strategy.
Exceptional support: The Commission adopted exceptional measures to support the wine, fruit and vegetable sectors this week, including increasing support for risk management tools such as harvest insurance and mutual funds, and extending the flexibility measures already in place until 15 October 2022. Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said: “From the spring frosts, floods to heatwaves, the extreme weather conditions have been particularly challenging for the wine, fruit and vegetable sectors this year. This comes after an already complicated 2020 year due to the COVID-19 crisis. These much needed support measures will relief producers across the EU during these difficult times, on top of the ones already put forward in 2020 and extended in 2021.”
Rising commodity prices: The Commission released the Autumn 2021 edition of the Short-Term Outlook Report this week, which provides a detailed overview of the latest trends and future prospects for each agri-food sector. Following the recovery of the economies of the EU, the United States and China, the prices of raw materials have increased significantly. In particular, energy prices have a significant impact on fertilizer prices. Additionally, the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, particularly in Asia, is impacting supply chains across the globe, adding to tensions in commodity markets.
SCA: Ahead of next week’s exchange of views at the AGRIFISH Council, delegates from the Special Committee on Agriculture highlighted the need to balance emissions reduction with securing food supply and agricultural production and warned of the potential reduction in the competitiveness of EU agriculture, stressing the need for adequate incentives. They also prepared the discussion on marketing standards ahead of next week’s meeting, where there was both widespread support for marketing standards and agreement on the need to review them, although many delegations emphasised the need for simplification and emphasised that standards and labelling shouldn’t increase confusion for consumers. In particular, many delegates supported the presidency’s proposal to improve labelling for honey blends by indicating the source of each honey in blends (including non-EU sources).
Farm to Fork controversy: Civil society organisations joined forces this week in a op-ed expressing their concerns about studies and corporate-led events “based on models which are ill-suited to evaluating the impacts of transforming our food systems.” Further, the authors point to how inappropriate these studies and events are when assessing the Farm to Fork Strategy itself. Learn more.
Deposit refund systems: UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe has joined forces with Natural Mineral Waters Europe and Zero Waste Europe to call on the European Commission to establish minimum requirements for new efficient Deposit Refund Systems (DRS) for beverage packaging around Europe. The associations say that DRS is one of the “key instruments” to help achieve a circular economy for beverage packaging and that a well-designed DRS can help the industry achieve the collection targets set out in the EU Single Use Plastics Directive (77% by 2025 and 90% by 2029).
Agrifood news from the Capitals
Denmark has announced over 1.25 billion kroner (€168 million) funding to develop and promote plant-based foods, and to encourage farmers to grow plant protein crops. The investment, which is the largest investment in plant-based research and development by any EU country to date, comes as part of a key climate agreement for food and agriculture. NGOs are now calling on the rest of Europe to follow Denmark’s lead. Acacia Smith, policy manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said: “With this announcement, Denmark has recognised the huge potential of sustainable proteins to drive down agricultural emissions, and established itself as Europe’s biggest public investor in plant-based innovation. As they prepare for COP26, governments around the world should be factoring plant-based and cultivated meat into their climate plans, she added. “If they are serious about meeting the Paris Agreement and building strong, green economies, they must follow Denmark’s lead and invest in bringing sustainable proteins to consumers’ plates.” (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
The Belgian Constitutional Court supported the judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) on the ban on animal slaughter without stunning this week. Following a lengthy legal battle, last December the CJEU concluded, in response to the preliminary questions by the Belgian Constitutional Court, that member states are allowed to impose mandatory pre-slaughter stunning. With this ruling, the Belgian Constitutional Court also confirms the legality of the ban in the Belgian regions of Flanders and Wallonia. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
German environmental campaigners have called on MEPs to resist watering down the EU’s Farm-to-Fork strategy. On 18 October, the European Parliament plenary is set to vote on the food flagship policy proposed by the European Commission. After the parliament’s agriculture and environment committees had “already worked out a good draft, the proposals now risk being watered down by the European agriculture lobby,” Julian Bethke from the environmental organisation NABU told EURACTIV Germany. NABU called on MEPs to adopt the drafts put forward by the committees without amending them, for example regarding the targets for pesticide reduction and organic farming. The committees’ draft report had previously faced backlash among farmers’ organisations. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)
French lawmakers adopted a proposal on protecting farmers’ revenues this week. The proposal, introduced by French MP Grégory Besson-Moreau (LREM) in May after another escalation of the “price war” between farmers and the mass retail sector earlier this year, aims at giving greater bargaining powers to farmers when negotiating the price at which their products are sold as well as allowing for the price of raw materials needed for food production to be better taken into consideration. Adopted by the National Assembly in June, the proposal had been modified by the Senate in September. The version now adopted by the two chambers of Parliament will be discussed in a public session next Thursday (14 October). (Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.fr)
Greek banks must assume their responsibilities toward the agri-food industry, minister of rural development and food Spilios Livanos has said. “It is unacceptable to have set up a guarantee fund with €480 million available – €80 million of which comes from the state – and see only €10 million having been disbursed so far”, he said. He stressed that the agri-food sector has helped the Greek economy keep running and therefore, the banking system must trust the primary production sector. “The banking sector is reluctant and afraid to do substantial development work in the agricultural sector while the latter presents growing capacity worldwide,” he said. “We see that the demand is growing worldwide and that products like ours, which are of quality and safe, have even better luck. Nevertheless, the banks in Greece are still afraid to come out dynamically to make products and to trust the Greek farmers,” he added. (Georgia Evangelia Karagianni| EURACTIV.gr)
The Hungarian government’s plans to create a €400 million fund to help expand Hungarian agricultural companies has been criticised by both the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Agriculture. “We have asked Hungary to construct its government programmes extending to Slovakia or implemented on our territory only after mutual agreement,” FM Ivan Korčok said. Agriculture Minister Ján Vlčan also criticised the Hungarian project. “In the context of good relations, any cross-border support should be provided only with the knowledge and consent of the State in whose territory the assistance comes. I believe that Hungary will also return to this diplomatic practice,” Slovak agriculture minister Samuel Vlčan said. Assuming the funds are allocated between Hungary’s seven neighbours, Hungary would buy a crop plan in Slovakia worth €57 million, which could buy around 9,000 hectares in the south. (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk)
In a formal complaint submitted this to the European Commission, environmental experts from ClientEarth and Ecologistas en Acción state that Spain’s continued failure to protect the Mar Menor – an internationally protected site and popular tourist destination – from chemical overload breaches EU and national laws. The continuous build-up of fertilisers from nearby agricultural land has created toxic conditions in the area, decimating the site and resulting in recurrent episodes of mass deaths of marine life and habitats with the most recent episode of mass die-off occurring this August. ClientEarth wildlife and habitats lawyer Soledad Gallego said that the European Commission must urgently act to stop this environmental crisis. “As legal guardian of the Mar Menor, the Spanish authorities have a duty to safeguard the lagoon, not purely because of its natural beauty, but because it is vital for the health of people and nature, which risks disappearing forever,” he warned. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
The Irish farmers’ association held a number of ‘Save Irish Farming’ rallies around the country this week, in response to mounting political and policy pressure related to climate change that IFA says has “unfairly” targeted food production, according to Farming Independent.The farm lobby group leader says they are looking to negotiate a plan at farm level with the government that safeguards the viability of farmers. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
The agricultural industry has lauched furious criticism at Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week after his callous remarks over the fate of 120,000 pigs which are in line to be slaughted within the coming weeks due to worker shortages. “Our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. That is the reality. Your viewers need to understand that is what happens,” he said during a televised interview, going on to blame the industry for not providing the pay or conditions to attract enough domestic workers to the job. Calling his interview “astonishingly arrogant and ignorant”, the pig sector has said it is growing “increasingly exasperated” with the Government’s lack of interest in what is happening. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)
11-14 October | European Week of Regions and Cities
11-12 October | AGRIFISH Council meeting
12 October | Being young in a mountain area in 2021
12 October | Farm to Fork: what the analysis and data tells us
13 October | Long-term vision for the EU’s rural areas
14 October | The challenge of Food Security
14-15 October | Farm to Fork 2021 Conference