Commission bemused by consumer information conundrum

As it fights COVID-19, the EU cannot drop the ball on the obesity and overweight crisis. It is high time policymakers helped people shop for healthier products by making the Nutri-Score nutrition label mandatory, writes Monique Goyens.  [SHUTTERSTOCK]

This article is part of our special report Sustainable food systems in the Farm to Fork strategy.

The European Commission has started sketching the new EU-wide food labelling scheme, expected to be proposed in the context of the new Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), but the debate over what kind of information to provide to consumers has just started.

It is still not clear whether the labelling system the Commission is about to propose will have mandatory information on nutritional aspects only or if there will be space for other information on sustainability or animal welfare.

Contacted by EURACTIV, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the Commission will propose actions to help consumers choose healthy and sustainable diets, as it is stressed in the Green Deal communication.

The Commission’s main aim is to explore ways to give consumers information to help them make more sustainable choices, Kyriakides confirmed.

“I am fully aware that consumers want to have access to maximum information, in a clear way, and if possible on the labels, on the food that they are buying in stores,” she said.

Kyriakides added that the EU food labelling system is already very transparent and that in the context of providing more information to consumers they’ve also seen some voluntary initiatives, “including on environmental aspects.”

So far, the main discussion at the EU level has been about which kind of nutritional label will be mandatory, with a battle raging between the Nutri-score system backed by France and Italy’s counterproposal called Nutrinform battery.

French Nutri-score converts the nutritional value of products into a code consisting of five letters, from A to E, each with its own colour, while Italy’s Nutrinform indicates to the consumer the nutritional contribution in relation to the daily needs, as well as the correct dietary style.

Nutri-score raises some environmental concerns, as meat products often have a high Nutriscore due to a high content of protein, despite the high emissions linked to livestock farming.

Greens, socialists back nutritional label despite environmental concerns

Lawmakers from the Greens and the socialist group in the European Parliament push on Nutriscore to provide citizens with the EU-wide nutritional label system that is currently lacking. But potential discrepancies between the system and environmental policy are still open.

Nutri-Score is backed by EU consumer organisation BEUC, which has explained that the scheme only aims to make nutrition information easy to grasp for consumers and that it is currently impossible to integrate environmental concerns in the Nutri-Score calculation.

“But as consumers are increasingly interested in the environmental impact of their food, a separate label could do the trick,” BEUC’s senior communications officer Pauline Constant told EURACTIV.

According to her, Nutri-score alone should not be seen as a silver bullet that will make consumers shift to more sustainable diets. “For this to happen, decision-makers must make sure that choosing sustainable food is affordable, easy and attractive,” she added.

The EU already tried to adopt methodologies to measure products’ environmental footprint (PEF) as part of the efforts to move toward a green single market.

Several industries have tested the PEF in practice in a Commission-led pilot phase, putting in place different approaches in order to identify those that could work best.

According to Europe’s food and drink lobby group, FoodDrinkEurope, consumers should be further empowered to become participants in the transition towards more sustainable food systems and climate neutrality.

“For instance, the correct sorting and disposal of packaging waste is a vital step in unlocking a more circular economy, one which cannot be achieved without the active participation of consumers,” said Laura Degallaix, director of environmental sustainability at FoodDrinkEurope.

But consumers increasingly demand more information about the conditions in which the animals whose meat they eat have been raised and slaughtered.

There have been a number of national voluntary schemes implemented in different member states. However, a corresponding legislative framework has yet to be initiated at the European level.

At the Agrifish Council on 27 January, the German delegation called for the creation of a  transparent and harmonised EU-wide animal welfare label, arguing that this will “significantly increase consumer confidence in the labelling of animal products.”

They argued that the creation of an animal welfare label would also open up a new market for farmers to sell products produced to higher animal welfare standards and would lead to an improvement of animal welfare in livestock husbandry.

This proposal was supported by several other delegations, including Spain, Denmark and Italy, the latter saying that such a label would help the “growing number of citizens” who would like as much information as possible about animal welfare in order to make informed choices on both the nutritional and ethical aspects.

The European Commission was invited by the Council conclusions to assess the need for and impact of an EU regulatory framework with criteria for animal welfare labelling schemes taking into account national experience.

Speaking at the Council, Health Commissioner Kyriakides said she would consider the German delegation’s proposal for EU wide labelling, saying that proposals to go beyond existing animal welfare rules and regulations will be part of the Farm-to-Fork strategy, due to be released this spring.

Considering all nutritional, environmental and animal welfare aspects that must be taken into account, some stakeholders are also tempted by the potential of digital tools for providing information to consumers, in order to avoid long and unwieldy food labels.

“It would be important to increase especially the digital agenda capabilities within the value chain to make sure that the consumers can make an informed choice all the way to the primary producers,” said Pekka Pesonen, Secretary-general of farmers association Copa-Cogeca.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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