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.
On Thursday (1 April), Roberto Berutti, a member of Wojciechowski’s cabinet, spoke at a public event organised by the youth section of Italy’s centre-right party Forza Italia, with which he stood for local public office in the past.
In the event, which was open to all via the Facebook page of the organisers, he was introduced as a member of Wojciechowski’s cabinet although he expressed his personal views on the thorny issue of Nutri-Score that is driving a wedge through Italy and France.
He criticised quite harshly this labelling system as “an important topic that will cause a lot of damage to the Italian agri-food sector.”
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.
The labelling framework most likely to get the nod from the Commission is the colour-coded Nutri-Score, developed and backed by France.
The Nutri-Score converts the nutritional value of products into a code consisting of five letters, from A to E, each with its own colour. However, it is seen as penalising some of the core products of the Mediterranean diet.
For this reason, the Italian government has offered the Commission another scheme called NutrInform, based on a “battery-powered” symbol that shows the consumer the nutritional contribution in relation to their daily needs, as well as the correct dietary style.
“The battery system is certainly a much more honest alternative for the legitimate need of the end consumer to know how food is made and from which original products the food they eat is derived,” Berutti said.
He left it to other speakers on the panel to explain the technical aspects and the reasons why there is “an ideological fallacy in describing the Nutri-Score as a panacea.”
According to him, it’s not only the survival of the Mediterranean diet that is at stake.
“They [Mediterranean countries] have to defend all that multitude of excellent products defined by the EU as products with protected designation of origins (PDO) or with protected geographical indication (PGI), which the European Union itself, in a schizophrenic manner, tries to penalise as the common narrative now is that meat is the devil, not to mention alcohol,” he said.
The cabinet to which Berutti belongs is only partially involved in the process, as the task of outlining a proposal for a harmonised food labelling scheme is within the mandate of the food safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
The Commission’s proposal is due in the fourth quarter of 2022 and will be preceded by an impact assessment and stakeholder consultations.
Speaking of other countries’ behaviour on the promotion of agricultural products, Berutti said that France has been remarkably silent on this issue so far, despite being the largest country after Italy in the EU in terms of PGI.
“It is absolutely strange that the French world is backing the wishes of the Greens, represented in disguise by the chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee [Pascal Canfin], and they are not rebelling against this excessively green wave, which is no longer a green transition but a green revolution,” he said.
He also mentioned that Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who is in charge of delivering the Green Deal, usually talks about the so-called international dimension of the F2F strategy in his meetings with other cabinets.
For Timmermans, the EU should export its model of sustainability to countries like the African ones, teaching them how to do agriculture in a sustainable way.
“Try to think of the examples he cited in many of the meetings we had? I’ll tell you, they were; Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez and Danone,” he said.
“So if these are the champions of sustainability, my fear is that in the future they will be labelled with the “green” of healthy products, only ultra-processed products that can be graduated in terms of sugar content or fat,” he added.
This will, according to Berutti, end up losing a whole series of elements typical of the Mediterranean food tradition that has proven to be more a harbinger of longevity than many other diets.
“The attempt is to replace products traditionally grown in the field with those grown artificially using hydroponic or vertical garden processes. All this, we must avoid,” he concluded.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]