Pr Serge Hercberg1,2, Dr Pilar Galan1, Dr Mathilde Touvier1, Manon Egnell1, Dr Chantal Julia1,2
1 Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (EREN), U1153 Inserm/Inra/ Cnam/ Université Paris 13
2 Department of Public Health, Hôpital Avicenne, AP-HP
After a multi-year battle, the nutrition label Nutri-Score was officially adopted by public health authorities in France in October 2017, and more recently in several other European countries (Belgium and Spain). Displayed on the front-of-pack, this label aims to inform consumers, at a glance, about the overall nutritional quality of foods and encourage towards healthier choices at the point of purchase by helping consumers to compare the nutritional quality of foods. The second objective of the Nutri-Score label is to motivate manufacturers to improve nutritional quality of their food through reformulations and/or innovations to be better positioned on the Nutri-Score color scale. Nutri-Score is supported by a comprehensive scientific background. Indeed, more than 35 studies were published during the last years in international peer-reviewed scientific journals validating both the underlying algorithm of the Nutri-Score and its graphical design, and thus demonstrating its effectiveness and superiority compared to other existing labels, including those proposed by various economic operators.
Today, however, the uptake of the Nutri-Score entirely depends on the goodwill of manufacturers who can refuse to ensure a complete transparency of the nutritional quality of their products. Indeed, due to a specific European regulation (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers) voted a few years ago (and drafted in a context of very strong pressures from powerful lobbies), member-states cannot make a front-of-pack nutrition label such as Nutri-Score compulsory in their country. Hence, even if many agro-alimentary firms and major retailers have agreed to apply the label on their products since its official adoption by the French government (and then in Belgium and Spain), large multinational food companies (e.g. Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestlé, Mars, Unilever, Mondelez, Ferrero and Kellogg’s) are still refusing to display the Nutri-Score label. Coca-Cola has even recently adopted a labelling system of multiple traffic lights on its products in France, entering into competition with Nutri-Score and potentially leading to confusion among consumers…
Rejecting Nutri-Score may not be entirely without an afterthought. The food portfolio of these companies contains a large numbers of sweet, fat or salty products, thus classified in D or E on the Nutri-Score scale, including soft drinks, chocolate bars, confectionery, sweet biscuits, breakfast cereals, ice cream, and appetizers. For example, for Mars and Ferrero, 100% of their products are classified in D or E; for Mondelez, it is 86% of their products; 55% for Nestlé; 54% for Coca-Cola; 52% for Unilever; 50% for Kellogg’s and 46% for PepsiCo (https://theconversation.com/logo-nutritionnel-pourquoi-certains-industriels-font-de-la-resistance-87424).
Some of these large companies continue by all possible avenues to block the adoption of Nutri-Score at the European level, through different convergent strategies. These strategies include the proposals of alternatives to the Nutri-Score which, unsurprisingly, tend to favor their products. This is the case for example of the Evolved Nutrition Label (derived from the British Multiple Traffic Light) which, by a subtle manipulation of the original label (setting thresholds per serving rather than for 100 g/100ml), change the colors characterizing the nutrient contents of products, switch red signs into amber, and mislead the consumers on the actual nutritional quality of products. Other firms have proposed alternatives which appear very difficult for consumers to understand, such as the nutritional circles proposed by the association of German food manufacturers BLL, the Reference Intakes (GDA or RI) supported by many industrialists, or the battery system proposed by the Italian government (a country where the economic weight of powerful agro-food groups such as Ferrero or the processed meat and cheeses sectors is very important…). The Italian system appears to be even counter-intuitive, representing the nutrient content of foods through the icon traditionally used to monitor the load of electrical device, but curiously used in the Italian label in the opposite direction (the more the battery is «unloaded», the better the nutrient content of the food!). In addition to these alternatives that appear more favorable to them, big food companies aim to blur the message and to multiply labels, thus marginalizing Nutri-Score and preventing it from being officially adopted by many European countries.
Finally, among the strategies put in place to discredit Nutri-Score and try to delay its deployment in Europe, are conveyed many fake-news on social networks, sometimes picked up by media outlets and by politicians opposed to Nutri-Score …
The mobilization of some politicians (national parliamentarians, MEPs and even ministers) is also a classic strategy used by these large food companies to block or delay the adoption of Nutri-Score at the level of member states. This has recently been seen in Germany, where the FoodWatch organization revealed internal emails from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (https://www.foodwatch.org/de/pressemitteilungen/2019/interne-e-mails-zeigen-julia-kloeckner-verheimlicht-studie-zur-naehrwertkennzeichnung/?L) in which the Minister of Agriculture (considered by consumer associations to be close to industry) refused to publish a scientific report commissioned from a research institute, considering that it was too much in favor of the Nutri-Score (the second report presented publicly by the Minister being much more nuanced…). This political lobbying has also been shown recently, on the eve of a Codex Alimentarius meeting, through an official statement from the WHO Italian Ambassador opposing a WHO technical report on nutrition labels, totally denying published scientific works, just to defend Italian food products (https://theconversation.com/etiquetage-nutritionnel-la-guerre-du-parmesan-et-du-prosciutto-116905)… A few months earlier, it was the Italian ambassador in Brussels who tried to convince the Belgian Minister of Health to renounce to adopt Nutri-Score.
While 116 companies (manufacturers and retailers) have, to date, agreed to display Nutri-Score on their products in France, which represents roughly 20-25% of the French food market (see list on the website of Santé Publique France: https://www.santepubliquefrance.fr/Sante-publique-France/Nutri-Score), and if others have done the same in Belgium, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg and Spain, major multinationals food firms are still not ready to join this positive position. These large food companies opposed to Nutri-Score represent several hundred brands. The top 10 of the largest multinationals food companies in the world represent nearly 500 different brands (472 in 2015 according to OXFAM) which correspond to a very large part of the food supply available to European consumers. Of these 10 big companies, 9 refuse to display the Nutri-Score (only Danone accepted).
Top 10 world’s largest food and beverage Companies (including their brands)
Other food companies (outside of the Top 10) are also still reluctant to display Nutri-Score on their products such as Lactalis, Ferrero, Aoste, Bel, Lesieur, Bigard, Charal, Pasquier, Harris, and many other companies producing foods which are widely present in supermarkets. The refusal by companies to display Nutri-Score on their products represents a serious loss of opportunity for consumers to have access to a synthetic, simple and intuitive information for all products present in supermarkets or food stores. However, the desire for transparency on the nutritional quality of food is a strong demand from consumers, who are increasingly using mobile applications that offer this type of information even for brands which refused to display Nutri-Score on their packaging.
Consumers may pressure brands refusing to display Nutri-Score by avoiding or boycotting their products on the principle that “If they don’t display it, they have something to hide!” However the best solution for consumers in order to have a favorable purchasing environment allowing them to integrate the nutritional dimension into their purchasing behaviour, would be for all manufacturers and retailers to label their products . So making compulsory the display of Nutri-Score on foods appears necessary; and for that, amending the European regulation on consumer information (No 1169/2011) adopted in 2011 by the European Parliament which took effect on December 13th, 2014 would be required. This regulation adopted after several years of discussions, made the nutritional declaration mandatory as a table presenting, on the back of pack, the nutrient content of the food (studies have shown that it is rarely used by consumers, given the complexity of its presentation and interpretation) ; and, on the other hand, it also prohibits European states from the possibility of making mandatory an additional nutritional information system in the form of a front of pack label. Industry lobbies spent €1 billion in 2015 to prevent the introduction of a front-of-pack label at the European level (a figure never denied by the agro-food industry, and which is to be related to the 985 billion euros stirred by this sector).
Amending a European regulation through the traditional political procedure, besides being subject to the actions of the powerful lobbies who oppose it, is a particularly long, complex and uncertain process.
But another procedure exists to push the European Commission (EC) to review its regulation, through the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI). This innovation of the Lisbon Treaty, implemented in May 2012 gives citizens an opportunity to urge the EC to draft new proposals for legislation on the basis of citizens’ requests, provided they gather at least one million EU signatures from at least one quarter of the member countries.
This is a unique opportunity to get the Commission’s attention and to make Nutri-Score mandatory in Europe.
Submitting a European citizens’ initiative requires specific conditions and the application needs to be admissible and registered by the EC.
This is now the case with the European citizens’ initiative entitled «PRO-NUTRISCORE», launched at the initiative of 7 consumer associations members of BEUC (European Bureau of Consumer Associations): UFC-Que Choisir (France), Test-Achat (Belgium), VZBV (Germany), Consumentenbond (Netherlands), OCU (Spain), Federajca Konsumentow (Poland) and EKPIZO (Greece).
Registered May 8th 2019, under the number ECI(2019)000008, its purpose is to ask the European Commission to impose the label «Nutri-Score» on food products, to ensure a real quality of nutritional information provided to european consumers and to protect their health with three objectives:
1. Make nutritional labelling easier
to read and understand, so that the nutritional value of a food can be
understood at a glance in the face of the diversity of food supply;
2. Take action on public health issues by encouraging professionals to improve the composition of their products;
3. Harmonise nutritional information at European level by imposing a single official labelling system, thereby putting an end to the confusion experienced by European consumers when faced by the plethora of existing logos.
The registration of this European citizens’ initiative is a first success (many are usually rejected). But there is still a big challenge for this initiative to be completed, in less than a year, with one million signatures distributed in at least 7 European countries and registered on the European Commission’s website: http://www.pronutriscore.org
It is not a simple matter: only 4 out of 64 citizens’ initiatives proposed to the European Commission have been able to get registered and to collect more than 1 million signatures. But citizens/consumers have a real opportunity through this ICE to be heard by the Commission. It is an element of participatory democracy in the functioning of the European Union which can be a means of advancing public health for the benefit of consumers and despite the lobbies that oppose it.
By clicking on the link http://www.pronutriscore.org, each citizen/consumer is directed to the secure server of the European Commission to register their signature. The data required to sign the petition (identity card or passport number) depends on each country and derives from the regulation on the European Citizens’ Initiative. Data are hosted by the European Commission in a secure space and are obviously not the subject of any exchange or transfer.
Researchers in the fields of Nutrition and Public Health strongly support this initiative of consumer associations. This is an exceptional opportunity for citizens to weigh on the European Commission so that the benefits of this public health measure are taken into account and take precedence over purely economic interests. We can therefore hope that the Nutri-Score will be, in a near future, on all food products available to consumers in Europe, allowing them to integrate the nutritional dimension into their purchasing acts. By this simple measure, consumers will have the opportunity in their daily lives to improve their food choices and move towards healthier nutritional intakes while having access to a better nutritional quality of food supply. This is important given the major public health issues related to nutrition and in particular its recognized major role in the risk or protection against chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, obesity, diabetes, etc. This nutritional transparency, which is so useful for health, has to be considered as a right of consumers and a duty of those who manufacture or distribute foods, who must in no way be able to avoid it.
For all these reasons, we need to sign this citizen petition. We are signing it and inviting you to do the same: http://www.pronutriscore.org