June 17, 2024

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Brussels should ignore industry bellyaching about food health ratings

4 min read

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Dried prunes, Roquefort cheese, Iberian ham and olive oil may not necessarily go together well on a dinner plate, but these traditional foodstuffs have one thing in common. 

Politicians in France, Spain and Italy have swooped in to try to protect the delicacies from a long-awaited EU regulation that would require food producers to put clearer labels on packaging so that consumers can make healthier choices. They are trying to prevent Brussels from adopting what was once seen as the leading system — the Nutri-Score rating, which labels items from A (green) to E (red) to indicate their nutritional profile. 

Now used in France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg on a voluntary basis, Nutri-Score was developed by French scientists in 2017 and has been validated by peers as a quick way to guide shoppers in the grocery aisle. It is one of several so-called interpretative labelling systems being used to combat the public health challenges of rising obesity and diabetes. The UK has its own voluntary traffic light label and Chile a mandatory one that shows black stop signs for sugary, salty or fatty foods. 

Yet every time a country tries to implement “front of pack” interpretative food labelling, the industry’s lobbyists — concerned that more stringent labels will hurt sales — question the science underpinning it and argue for exemptions. To obstruct Brussels’ Nutri-Score proposal, food companies have cannily roped in politicians to argue that it puts culinary heritage and farmers at risk. Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni has been a particular vocal opponent, saying Nutri-Score was “discriminatory and penalising” against Italian foods and the Mediterranean diet.

Carole Delga, political head of the Occitanie region in south-west France, argued last month that traditional cheeses such as Roquefort should be exempt from labelling requirements because they cannot be reformulated to boost their ratings in the way that processed food can. “The Nutri-Score is very reductive. Roquefort is rich in protein, calcium and nutrients, and cannot be compared to ultra-processed foods,” she said. “I want to protect the economy of our terroirs”, using a term for the French countryside.

What Delga omitted in her passionate defence of “small producers, farmers and artisans” is that privately held dairy giant Lactalis produces the vast majority of Roquefort. It owns most of the producers in the only town where it can be made — Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the Aveyron region — which is protected by the strict location and recipe which is a condition of the AOC/AOP label.

Serge Hercberg, one of the scientists who created Nutri-Score, argues that Lactalis is using Roquefort as a lobbying tool when it is in fact trying to protect its portfolio of sugary products including rice pudding and flavoured yoghurts.

Italian group Ferrero, known for its Nutella spread, has also been a quiet force behind Italy’s lobbying. “They have created this fake idea that Nutri-Score will hurt traditional regional foods and pushed it in France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere,” Hercberg said in an interview. 

The pressure appears to be paying off in Brussels. The Commission has delayed a decision on the new labels due in late 2022. Although a spokesperson said no decision has been made yet, there are signs that the Nutri-Score scheme is on the ropes. In September, Claire Bury, a Commission official working on the regulations, suggested that Nutri-Score may not be chosen to avoid “polarising the debate” before adding that “all the nutrition labelling systems” in use in Europe were being considered.

Nutri-Score critics celebrated — but abandoning it would be a shame. While no labelling system is perfect, it has the merit of being easily understandable, widely used and backed by science. Exempting whole categories of food in the name of cultural heritage would also be an error.

Some food companies have already started reformulating products from yoghurts to frozen pizzas to improve their Nutri-Score ratings. As one said privately: “We put a lot of effort into promoting Nutri-Score and believed we could gain competitive advantage from having consumers being able to compare easily.”

Mélissa Mialon, a professor at Trinity College in Dublin who studies food industry lobbying, urged Brussels to act in the name of public health. “Sugary and fatty products are very profitable since our brains are hard-wired to want them,” she said, “but it’s the national health systems that have to pick up the tab when people get sick.”

leila.abboud@ft.com

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