This article is part of our special report ‘Working’ toward healthy eating.
As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the European Union address last month, there were several issues which sparked his passion. But one came as a surprise to the audience: fish fingers.
“Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers!” he declared emphatically. “Hungarians get less meat in their meals, Czechs less cacao in their chocolate. EU law outlaws such practices already.”
“In a Union of equals, there can be no second class consumers either. I cannot accept that in some parts of Europe people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical,” he said. “And we must now equip national authorities with stronger powers to cut out these illegal practices wherever they exist.”
Fish fingers may seem like an odd focus, but the phenomenon of which Juncker speaks is real, and examples can be found with many foods.
A report by Reuters news agency earlier this year found that a major brand of fish fingers was labeled in a shop in Bratislava as being made with 58% fish, while those in similar packaging a few miles away across the Austrian border stated that they contained 65% fish.
Eastern European governments and consumers groups have lodged complaints with the Commission about the practices.
There are other examples. The same drink products can have twice as much sugar in Croatia as they have in the United Kingdom. Some of this may be down to taste. But the consumer groups suspect other factors are at play.
Croatians may enjoy their drinks a little more sugary, but the difference is so stark it has led many to question why.
Given the Commission’s push to improve health outcomes by improving the nutritional content of peoples’ diets, addressing these ingredient differences has been bumped to high priority – hence it’s placement in the EU’s flagship annual state of the union speech.
The Commission has made one million euros available for member states to tackle the problem, through enforcement of two pieces of EU legislation – a law requiring full listing of ingredients and another barring “marketing of identically branded products in a way that has a potential to mislead consumers”.
The Commission is also launching a project to produce a snapshot of the nutritional quality of common food products sold in supermarkets across the bloc. Under the idea of “what gets measured gets done”, the Commission hopes to use this to result in strengthened reformulation activities, benefitting public health and providing a level playing field for industry.
Given the link between diets and health, the expectation is that solving food content inequality will go a long way toward addressing health inequalities, which also have a stark East-West division in the EU.
This can also be done through continued work on increasing the nutritional quality of ingredients across the single market, and then making sure those rules are enforced across the bloc.
The Commission’s 2007 Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity-related Health Issues still serves as the blueprint for this strategy. The EU has goals to reduce salt content by 16 percent, and saturated fat by five percent, between 2016 and 2020.
Key to implementing these targets will be making sure they are reached across the bloc, not just in Western Europe. That will require constant monitoring by the Commission, which may be resisted by the very governments that are asking it to address the problem.
But given the issue’s prominent placement in the state of the union, it appears the Commission is ready to get tough.