An ad hoc label for food products belonging to the Mediterranean diet is the latest suggestion in the EU-wide food labelling fray, and is intended to cope with negative effects caused by the colour-coded Nutri-score labelling scheme.
The idea came from the Committee of the Regions (CoR), an EU institution with an advisory role, and popped up during its Euro-Mediterranean regional and local assembly (ARLEM) plenary.
In a report on addressing food security for people living in the Mediterranean region, the deputy mayor of the French city Nice, Agnès Rampal, proposed the development of a “Mediterranean products or Mediterranean diet label with a specific set of criteria and a broad communication plan.”
The model would follow the French system of quality indications Signes Officiels de Qualité et Origine (SIQO) used, for instance, to show on the front-of-pack label if a product originates from organic farming or has received the protected geographical indication (PGI) from the EU.
According to its advocates, this new label will also guarantee that Mediterranean products are nutritious and healthy.
The Mediterranean diet is mainly inspired by the dietary habits of Greece, southern Italy and Spain and has been recently praised by the Food and agriculture organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.
It consists of a large intake of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits and vegetables, with only moderate amounts of fish, dairy and wine, as well as limited red meat and poultry.
In the context of the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), the European Commission is expected to put forward a proposal for a harmonised food labelling scheme that will also consider the nutritional aspects of foodstuffs.
However, the labelling framework with more chances to get Commission nod, the colour-coded Nutri-score, developed and backed by France, is seen as penalising some of the core products of the Mediterranean diet.
Italians, in particular, argue that Nutri-score is biased against the Mediterranean diet as it assigns a low score to foods with high energy content, saturated fat, high quantity of sugar or salt.
According to the CoR member Rampal, who proposed the new food label, the Mediterranean diet is both the guarantor of health and an asset for the common identity in the Mediterranean.
“And the Nutri-score should fully reflect the importance of these issues,” she told EURACTIV.
The nutritional value of products is converted into a code consisting of five letters, from A to E, each with its own ‘traffic-light’ colour.
The system assigns a low score to foods with high energy content, saturated fat, high quantity of sugar or salt, rewarding the presence of fibres, proteins and percentage of fruit and vegetables instead.
The main complaint from the Italian side is that extra virgin oil, an essential product in the Mediterranean diet, is classified with the lowly letter D and the colour orange.
Rampal shares the concern about the inadequacy of the current Nutri-score system in assessing the nutritional relevance of the Mediterranean diet.
“The Nutri-score evaluates each product without any real analysis of the quality of production and without taking into account the quantity consumed,” she said, recalling that the Mediterranean diet rests on the golden rule of consuming in moderation.
Rampal acknowledged that Nutri-score has already shown relevance in terms of its scientific basis, as well as benefits from a public health point of view and effectiveness for its graphic format.
“But if the Nutri-score is to be adopted as it stands at the European level, some of the most popular Mediterranean diet foods in the world will be rated less healthy than Coca Cola zero,” she said.
The Nutri-score, she added, “discriminates negatively against healthy foods with high levels of saturated fats.”
The European Commission declined to answer if there is room for such regional indications in the framework they are mulling over. It also declined to comment on whether there is a risk that such a label could fragment the single market.
However, the Commission has always frowned upon any national attempt to regulate the matter of food origin labelling.
Speaking before ministers last September, Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski said the adoption of national measures is not the appropriate way to respond to increased consumer demand on the origin of the food they buy.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]