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Europe’s food labelling wars: much ado about nothing?

With the launch of the EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy last month, European food industries find themselves in the midst of a heated debate over the bloc’s food supply, with the battle over the future of European food playing out across multiple fronts. Identified by the European Commission (EC) as a pillar of its European Green Deal, EU leaders are hopeful agricultural reform can play a major role in counteracting climate change.

However, it’s not just environmental concerns causing consternation about the F2F announcement. With over half EU’s adult population overweight or obese, some nutritional campaigners were pushing hard for the strategy to introduce standardized front-of-pack (FOP) labelling across the bloc. Instead, F2F has set the stage for two years of fierce discussion over which, if any, of the competing FOP labelling models would be most appropriate to boost public health moving forwards.

Uphill battle to prioritize environment

The climate change debate has dominated coverage of F2F, given Europe’s ambitious targets for cutting the agricultural sector’s environmental impact. Over the next ten years, the bloc aims to reduce fertilizer consumption by 20%, slash pesticide use by 50%, and see a 50% decrease in sales of antimicrobial agents. It also plans to ensure 25% of all arable land is organically farmed, and plant three billion trees by 2030. With the global agriculture and forestry sectors currently responsible for almost a fourth (24%) of all greenhouse gas emissions, these targets would already represent a major step in the right direction.

Translating those pronouncements into reality won’t be an easy ask, however. There has already been a backlash against some of the proposed objectives, with the emphasis on organic produce at conventional prices a particular bone of contention. Agricultural unions claim such an expectation is unfeasible and will jeopardize the livelihood of countless farmers across Europe, while the suggested transition towards a more plant-based diet has also met with resistance.

Those objections cannot be taken lightly, given the agricultural industry’s significant clout in making (or breaking) EU farming policy. As the legislative battles over reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is worth an estimated €60 billion per annum, have already indicated, one of the most serious challenges for European policymakers will be ensuring they do not upend the livelihoods of Europe’s farmers as they seek to revolutionize European farming.

Food labelling furor

The public health aspect of the debate, especially when it comes to nutrition, is becoming equally contentious. A vocal cross-section of researchers, activists, companies, and MEPs are pushing the bloc to adopt France’s Nutri-Score system as an EU-wide standard for front-of-pack (FOP) food labelling. They hold Nutri-Score up as a key tool for grappling with Europe’s obesity epidemic, pointing to the fact that several studies have indicated it can be a useful tool in encouraging consumers to make healthier choices. Industry behemoths Nestlé and Kellogg have endorsed the system, and a number of other EU governments – particularly in the Low Countries – seem to be following France’s lead.

Not everyone is convinced, however. One particularly damning piece of research revealed Nutri-Score was 17 times less effectivein influencing consumer behavior in a real-world environment than it had been in the laboratory. Even more concerningly, there are real worries that the system itself is inherently flawed. By attributing negative points for high saturated fat content and foodstuffs with only one ingredient, Nutri-Score has been accused of unfairly discriminating against a Mediterranean diet high in fish and healthy fats like olive oil, widely recognized as a healthy way of eating. At the same time, a German paper found that the system erroneously gave certain unhealthy meals a high score.

Even in countries that have technically accepted Nutri-Score, top officials have voiced doubts and insisted they will require modifications to meet their own national needs. This was the case in the Netherlands last year, when the Dutch government lent its support to France’s system all while pointing out discrepancies between its grading and Dutch dietary guidelines. Similar reservations came up in Spain in 2018, where health authorities answered criticism over Nutri-Score’s treatment of traditional staples like olive oil by declaring products with “one single ingredient” would be exempted entirely.

Italy has been a particularly vocal critic of Nutri-Score. With much of its homegrown produce (such as Parma ham and parmesan cheese) penalized by Nutri-Score’s metrics, Italian MEPs have opposed its implementation across the bloc. A rival system developed by Rome, dubbed Nutrinform, prioritizes information about the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of various nutrients, rather than Nutri-Score’s traffic-light-themed, good-or-bad framework. Nutrinform officially became a contender in the FOP labelling race this past January, after Italy recommended its use to the Commission.

Pivotal discussions ahead

Within the framework of F2F, the Commission will spend the next two and a half years deciding which of these competing systems is best-suited to serve as a harmonized European standard. For the present, FOP nutritional information remains voluntary, while those companies choosing to display it are following different blueprints.

The same is true with the regard to the environmental aspects of F2F. A robust stance on reform and ecologically minded change will be indispensable for realizing the targets the Commission has set out for itself, but given the sheer level of diversity within the European agricultural sector, fundamentally changing Europe’s food supply will require an unprecedented level of EU-wide buy-in.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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