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Why it’s time for an EU-wide nutrition label on food

A discussion has started at EU level on whether to adopt an EU-wide nutrition label. So far, it has received little public exposure but, unlike most EU debates, it has the potential to trigger passions and become a political fireball. Yet now is the right time to create an EU-wide nutrition label on food.

Health and consumer groups have long thought that labels on food need improving in a bid to steer people towards healthier options.

Our food has undeniably got more complicated in the last hundred years. The rise of the supermarket, with its enormous amount of choice, the growing complexity of food processing techniques (just look at a processed food’s long list of ingredients), and the increase in the number of producers from different locations involved in making a single product, are all contributing factors.

Today you can easily end up buying something without realising it’s a ticking timebomb for your heart and arteries.

At the same time, there has also been an explosion in the amount of packaged food on offer which is high in sugar, salt or fat content, three ingredients our bodies have to be particularly careful of.

Taken together, these trends have made it harder for people to figure out just how healthy a ready-made soup is, or how often to buy a jar of processed red cabbage.

Nutrition tables help, but are not enough

The nutrition table, usually on the back of the packaging, is very useful. It tells you how much protein, carbohydrates, salt, sugar or fat there is in something. But unless you’re a nutritionist, you probably don’t know if 1g of salt for every 100g of the product i.e. 1% of the product, is a lot or is perfectly reasonable.

A nutrition table for a box of biscuits

What are some of the solutions?

Nutritionists have come up with different possibilities to tackle the issue.

The traffic light system was the first one adopted by an EU country. UK supermarkets adopted it on a voluntary basis. It highlights the levels of salt, sugar and fat in a product based on a red, amber or green colour. So if a product has red colours, you shouldn’t be eating it often.

The UK traffic light label

Several years later, another scheme emerged in France called the Nutriscore. It’s simpler, and ranks products on an A to G scale, where A is green and G is red. It provides less information than the traffic light does, but helps you to see faster what that product is like in terms of nutrition overall.

The Nutriscore label

Italian agri-food producers felt threatened by both schemes. Right-wing politicians like Matteo Salvini or Giorgia Meloni pounced on the issue to bark at France for unfairly hurting Italy.

Italy, pressured by its agri-food industry and worried about the impact of other schemes on its food industry’s sales, has come up with its own scheme. The battery label, called NutrInform, is more of an adaptation of the traffic light scheme but it doesn’t hit the same heights because the information is poorly presented. It is unlikely to get much support beyond its borders as a result.

Now the politics

Given that the EU is a single market and a product can be sold right across the continent, it makes economic sense to develop one system which is applicable to all Europeans.

The same issue exists in all EU countries so it makes sense to have one system in place rather than 28 different ones.

Food producers are obviously going to be very touchy on this subject. Something which makes people doubt about whether to buy their product (the very point of the label) is something they will resist. Politicians will stand up to defend their big national food producers. And libertarian nutheads will be slamming whatever the EU does as the latest example of the nanny state and state intervention. Let them.

As governments from across the EU put forward their views on one or the other scheme, eyes are starting to turn to the EU to take action. So far, it has watched from the sidelines.

Tough choice for EU

The EU will now have a complicated decision to take. It’s likely it will take action as part of its push to better inform consumers on food choices later this year. Will the EU risk a confrontation with Italy over a nutritional label?

The scheme with the most support in the EU is Nutriscore. France and Belgium have made it voluntary in their countries, while Germany, Spain and the Netherlands have shown support for it. Big companies like Nestlé also support it and have chosen to display it on their products in the countries where the government has shown support for it. Consumer groups and a growing number of MEPs are behind it.

It is the simplest scheme and, visually, the most effective. It makes sense to make this the EU standard.

The Nutriscore does have its faults, however.

There is little clarity on how the algorithm works. A diet coke gets an A for example, yet its nutritional value is close to zero. How a tasty yet very fatty southern French dish called cassoulet, can get an A is bewildering.

A jar of cassoulet on sale in a Belgian supermarket

Then there are the exceptions for certain types of products. In France and Spain, cheese and ham get better rankings because they are considered national treasures. That should not happen. The same algorithm should apply to all products, even if it harms certain sectors. That’s the whole point of the label.

So which solution?

But these issues can be fixed fairly easily. Detractors are using examples to show the entire system is flawed, which is insincere. You can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

What is true is that the EU could and should have handled this better.

Instead of individual countries coming up with, and starting to apply, different systems, it would have made sense for the EU to set a nutrition label on food from the very start.

If some countries or companies have adopted a system which will now have to be changed, that has a cost. A cost which was avoidable.

Some will say that you need the market to develop before you set some rules. But those arguments make little economic sense in this case. It’s the same issue as with phone chargers. If governments had banged heads together and got producers to agree on a universal charger when the first smartphones came out, we wouldn’t have ended up with a different charger for every device we own, which is an environmental and economic waste.

But we are where we are. This should be a lesson for the EU. A common charger, or a common food label set early, make economic and regulatory sense. Then you let the market develop and you only intervene if you absolutely have to.

Time for an EU-wide nutrition label on food.

The EU should not delay the issue further which is only likely to push countries to adopt their own system. Trying to harmonise things further down the road will be more costly.

An EU-harmonised nutrition label makes sense. As food gets more complicated, the demand for a simple label will only grow.

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