This article is part of our special report Vulnerable Consumers.
An influential British parliamentary committee has issued a damning report on the government’s food policy, calling for more sustainable production and far clearer food labelling regulations to help consumers make better choices about what they eat.
The Environmental Audit Committee’s report and recommendations reflect growing concerns across Europe about food policies and regulations in an era when Europeans are getting fatter, and amid debates in Brussels over how to revamp food production to make it more environmentally sustainable.
Joan Walley, a Labour MP who chairs the committee, said “consumers are quite confused” about the maze of health and eco labels and that clearer requirements are needed to understand what is lower in fact and salt, as well as what is organic or ‘fair trade’.
Walley, speaking from Westminister on 23 May, also said steps taken by national governments to weaken conservation measures proposed for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) marked a setback for the environment but also for efforts to produce healthier food for European consumers.
Agricultural and fisheries ministers from the 27 EU countries on 15 May called for replacing key ‘greening’ measures recommended by the European Commission with a more flexible system.
Walley said assessing EU policies were beyond her committee’s remit, but said more cooperation is needed among EU countries to ensure sustainable food production and to protect consumers, citing rising levels of obesity, diabetes and other health problems.
Bulkier boys and girls
Children as seen as particularly vulernable to advertising for snacks, surgary beverages and fast food that – along with inactivity – are blamed for rising weight and health problems.
Some 22 million children in the EU are considered overweight or obese, with the numbers growing by 400,000 per year, according to the European Commission.
A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that 13.3% of EU children aged 11 to 15 are overweight or obese, with numbers rising for boys in all countries, while declining slightly for girls in Ireland and Britain.
European officials have recognised the threat of creeping rise in weight problems, backing specialised campaigns and promotional events on healthy eating. But health experts say more could be done, including better health education and organised school activities.
In March, MEP upheld plans to create a fixed number of standardised nutritional claims on food and beverages, paving the way for 222 claims such as "low fat" or "reduced cholesterol" to be carried on food packaging.
EU food labels
The European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee rejected efforts to throw out the EU’s proposed list of health claims on the grounds that they are disproportionate and placed undue burden on regulators in authorising the health benefits made on food labels.
The EU’s nutrition regulation requires that all health claims not approved by the European Food Safety Authority to be removed from the market. All 27 EU countries are obliged to follow the rules. At the time, both industry and consumer groups hailed the vote to uphold the permitted health claims.
Monique Goyens, who heads the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, has said the regulation “will stop consumers from being misled by unsubstantiated, exaggerated or untruthful claims about foodstuffs. Only genuine health claims will be allowed to remain on the market.”
FoodDrinkEurope, representing the food and beverage industry, has said that harmonised standards “would bring certainty to the consumer, provide information on the beneficial properties of nutrients in food and help consumers to make informed food choices.”
In addition to expressing concerns about agricultural sustainability and labelling, the report calls for stronger limits on food marking aimed at children, expanding health and food education for young people, and getting public food procurement in sync with health diets and sustainable agriculture.