Eco-score makes its entry in EU’s front-of-pack labelling debate

While the project will first focus on certain British food products, similar initiatives have existed in France since the start of the year. [Bihlmayer Fotografie/Shutterstock]

The European Commission registered on Wednesday (30 June) a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) calling for a “European eco-score” to inform consumers about the ecological impact of different products amid growing support for such a move in France. EURACTIV France reports.

When a citizens initiative is registered by the Commission, organisers can start the process of collecting signatures in a bid to reach the one million signatures threshold to be discussed by the European Commission, which can decide to put forward a legislative proposal on the matter.

Since 2012, 81 ECI have been registered while 6 have reached the signature threshold, one of them being taken into account in the recent revision of the Drinking Water Directive (DWD) and becoming the first citizen-led EU law.

The initiative could soon see ongoing talks on front-of-pack labelling expanded to include the proposed rating to show a product’s environmental impact, from its production to packaging and transport.

Despite the fight on colour-coded Nutri-Score currently stealing the show, not only nutritional aspects will be considered by the European Commission in outlining its final proposal for a harmonised food labelling scheme within the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy.

“The Commission will also examine ways to harmonise voluntary green claims and to create a sustainable labelling framework that covers, in synergy with other relevant initiatives, the nutritional, climate, environmental and social aspects of food products,” reads the text of F2F.

Likewise, the proposed Eco-score is designed to “send a clear signal on the importance of taking action for the environment to the European institutions” and increase citizens’ awareness with a single indication “that avoids confusion for consumers,” according to the initiative’s organisers.

The move follows mounting calls for ecological impact labelling across Europe, prompting many private companies to develop their own Eco-Scores. A 2020 study found that more than half of EU citizens would like to see the environmental impact of their food products indicated.

However, the group behind the citizens’ initiative criticises the current lack of legal harmonisation to regulate calculation methods, as well as the fact that most eco-scores are so far only available online – as is the case in France.

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The eco-score, already a trend in France

Earlier this year, France started experimenting with an environmental score for food products as called for by the circular economy law in February 2020.

The Citizens’ Climate Convention, a group of 150 randomly selected citizens making legislative proposals regarding the environment, also called for the introduction of a “carbon score” on all consumer products.

Since January, a number of food-related applications and websites such as Yuka, Open Food Facts and Marmiton have introduced a traffic light eco-score based on the Nutri-score model, with products given a rating from A to E.

Others have begun to catch on. On 22 June, French supermarket giant Carrefour launched an environmental display on its website, saying it will be applying an eco-score to all its food products online.

The experiment – the results of which will be presented in October – “will allow Carrefour to analyse customer feedback and expectations to highlight potential improvements in the calculation methodology,” the group said.

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A method in favour of intensive agriculture?

However, critics have questioned the method used to calculate the French eco-score, saying it fails to take into account all environmental damage caused in the whole production chain.

Based on ADEME’s Agribalyse agricultural database, the method establishes a score ranging from 1 to 100, measuring the environmental impacts of a product’s production, packaging and transport.

But critics such as CIWF France, an NGO committed to sustainable livestock farming, have said the method does not properly take the damage to biodiversity and the impact of pesticides into account.

According to the NGO, the life cycle analysis, designed to rate industrial products and based solely on output in kilograms or litres, “does not take into account the use of pesticides or antibiotics or their impact on health, soil, air or water quality.”

The group added that the benefits of organic farming or free-range farming on biodiversity and animal welfare are also not included in the indicators.

The impacts calculated in this way are “erroneous because they are incomplete”, and so might favour “intensive agriculture in an aberrant manner,” the NGO warned.

There are plans to compensate for this shortcoming with an additional bonus system whereby points are either added or deducted from the initial score depending on a product’s country of origin, seasonality, the existence of organic or quality labels and whether the packaging is recyclable or not.

Nutri-Score food labelling plan is not panacea, EU official says

The proposed colour-coded Nutri-Score labelling system should not be seen as a panacea for consumers to assess the healthiness of food, according to a member of the cabinet of EU’s agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski.

Foundation Earth Eco-score pilot project

On Saturday (26 June), Foundation Earth – a new NGO made up of international food giants, supermarket chains, the European food innovation body EIT Food, as well as food and environment experts – announced the launch of a pilot project to print an eco-score on selected product packages as of September.

The Foundation Earth eco-score will rate products from A+ to G according to a method developed by Britain’s Oxford University with the support of WWF.

The calculation will consider the environmental impacts of farming, processing, packaging and transportation. For each of these life cycle stages, the impact will be measured in terms of carbon emissions, the quantity of water used, the water pollution generated and the impact on biodiversity.

In parallel, a Nestlé-sponsored R&D programme is destined to prepare Foundation Earth for a pan-European launch of the label in 2022.

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[Edited by Josie Le Blond and Gerardo Fortuna]

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