Food labelling has been mandatory in the United States for 15 years, but has not had any affect on consumer behaviour. “Labelling alone will not do the job,” argues Sabine Nafziger, from the food and drinks industry confederation CIAA in an interview with EURACTIV.
To mark the second anniversary of the launch of the EU platform for action on diet, physical activity and health, EURACTIV asked Sabine Nafziger, director of consumer information, diet and health issues at the food and drinks industry confederation CIAA, to explain the platform’s achievements so far, from the industry perspective.
What have the food and drink industries and CIAA done since the obesity platform was launched two years ago?
We think that the biggest outcome is the CIAA recommendation for a common nutrition labelling scheme. Although it is voluntary, it has been accepted by all our members.
As to advertising and marketing – in 2004 we adopted general marketing and advertising principles, which, under the leadership of the platform, have been extended to all other commercial communications. So, not only do they cover TV, but also internet and other types of communication.
As to product reformulation, portion sizes etc, we are currently conducting a survey to assess what individual operators are doing in a meaningful way, so that we can communicate that information to decision-makers, the press and outside stakeholders.
What does the CIAA nutrition-labelling scheme consist of?
The core of the exercise is to provide this information in a way that is meaningful for the consumer. Current European law says that if you do nutrition labelling, you have to do it in a certain way, namely with nutrition tables on products listing nutrients and telling the figure. However, consumer research tells us is that consumers don’t find this information helpful.
So we try to add onto this by providing Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). GDAs tell you how much a specific product represents in terms of energy. We want consumers to know what a given food brings to your daily energy intake.
Basic principle of the scheme is to make sure that a big number of operators provide nutrition information, to increase the information available on products.
Does the CIAA recommendation have the support of consumer organisations?
Consumer organisations have two basic messages. Firstly, there needs to be more nutrition information on the packs, and they want a law on that because they want everybody to do it here and now. We say OK, we’ll do that, but on voluntary basis, to give more flexibility to our small companies – provided that the market delivers. If it does not, we have a problem.
Secondly, they want an interpretative element, a colour-coding (yellow, green, red) on the GDAs. I would describe the interpretative element as a “judgment of value” on the content of nutrients. We think that adding an interpretative element would perhaps be going one step too far, because all consumers are not the same. Not all consumers need the same balance of nutrients – it depends on how active they are, if they are growing or are already adults.
In the end, no matter what labelling you put in the food packs, doesn’t their effect on consumer behaviour depend on the persons’s knowledge of nutrition?
Yes, that is why we say that information is the basis, but will not alone do the job. In the US, for example, mandatory nutrition labelling on 13 nutrients has been in existence for 15 years, but the US never invested in consumer education, so that is why consumers don’t pay attention to them.
Who should educate consumers?
Consumer education has to be government-led. But industry can provide funds for education as well and participate in the process.
Sometimes economic operators are accused of going into areas that are not their responsibility. There is willingness from industry to work together with others on education, but only if it is accepted, considered as appropriate. If not, public authorities should do it.
What portion of the food products in the EU market will be GDA-labelled by the end of 2007, taking into account that a number of CIAA companies have committed to introducing them?
To be honest, the figure may seem low, it is about 3% of the market. The companies currently starting implementation represent as a group a total of 7% of the EU market, all products included, and they will, by the end of 2007, have around half of their products carrying nutrition labelling. The rest will follow on.
Companies will progressively introduce nutrition-labelling with other planned labelling changes, to reduce costs. This explains the differences in implementation. They do two to three labelling changes; for example for marketing reasons, voluntary consumer information or mandatory changes due to legislation.
Your recommendation was published in June 2006. What are your targets for 2010 in terms of market share, compared with the 3% expected by the end of 2007?
We have no targets in terms of figures. We say a significant amount of the market, which would mean something like 40-50% of the market, below that you are not really credible. This is a real challenge for us.
What can CIAA do to enforce the take-up by operators of this scheme?
We can only encourage our members to do so, as we have no authority over them.
How was the CIAA labelling recommendation developed?
It is based on consumer research and dialogue. We saw that CIAA individual member companies were having different initiatives on labelling. However, we have often heard that lack of consistency in the provision of information is not helpful for consumers.
So, one of the real reasons for our recommendation was to say “operators unite yourselves and agree on a one way to do it”, so that the basic information will always be presented in the same way. As to front-of-pack labelling, consumer research has shown that they prefer the calorie information only on the front of the pack.
Another important factor in particular for the public authorities is equity, which is not expected to be reached by voluntary initiatives, but through legislation. This means that in the EU, each consumer has access to the same level of information.
Do you think the equity issue will be addressed in the Commission proposal for food labelling?
If there is a proposal, this issue may well be addressed in it.
Have you had any feedback on the CIAA labelling scheme?
Yes. Consumers like the scheme and appreciate the fact that it provides useful information and not just figures they do not know how to interpret. But we are still in the very early stages and need more products on the market in more countries.
Currently, the CIAA recommendation as to implementation covers mainly the UK, Poland, Spain and Benelux countries. The Commission needs to give us at least two to three years to have the time to really have representative products everywhere and then conduct consumer research on how this is being received.
Do you want the GDAs to be put in a front-of-pack position?
On the front of packs, we propose to have energy only, because in Europe only UK consumers are used to receiving additional nutrition information (some 80% of products have this). Other European countries, such as Estonia or Greece, don’t have anything. So, we suggest not to bombard consumers in these countries with too much information. We think energy is the most important – we don’t say the others are irrelevant, but they can stay on the back of packs.
What do you expect from the Commission proposal?
CIAA hopes that the proposal will take on board the concept of GDAs. We hope that the Commission and in particular member states, seeing the products on the market and the consumer response, will actually say yes, this is what we need to go for if we have legislation.
The Commission has postponed the proposal for so long already that it could postpone it for another year, so that we’ll have the time to see what our consumer research tells us, as there are more products on the market. But, then again, we need to remember that consumer research is not an exact science, but approximate.
We hope that the Commission and member states feel that we address the most urgent points, which are providing more information across the board to consumers and doing it in a consistent way. Our scheme delivers that – so what is the pressure to have a law here and now at European level?
The internal market is preserved as the scheme is unified and therefore does not provide for any cross-border disturbances; we provide more fact-based, truthful information. So, there is no pressing need in our view. However, this may not be the political stance of decision-makers, so we have to live with that.
EU basic foods platform was recently launched as producers of ‘basic foods’ [such as dairy products, vegetable oils, sugar, flours, meat, eggs and fish] want to have labelling exemptions for this type of food? How does this fit with the CIAA position?
The launching companies must have their own reasons for having launched the platform. They are CIAA member companies. Their nutrition labelling is totally consistent with what we do and fits into or scheme. They would be better off explaining that their products have some specificities, but that they are dealing with those in the framework of the CIAA scheme, because that is what it is.
Perhaps the nutrition labelling will have a category-based approach and in this sense the specificities of, for example, basic foods may well be taken into account. Some member states have conducted research on this and it may well be that this is included in the proposal. But this is not contrary to our position. We have always supported a ‘by-category’ approach.