Nutri-Score: Yes, the synergy of consumer pressure and scientific data can bend manufacturers… even large multinationals!

Pr Serge Hercberg, Dr Pilar Galan, Manon Egnell, Dr Mathilde Touvier, Dr Chantal Julia
Equipe de Recherche en Epidémiologie Nutritionnelle (Inserm/INRAe/CNAM/Université Sorbonne Paris Nord)

Six years ago, it was like an unequal contest, David against Goliath! When in January 2014, an official report to the French Minister of Health proposed the idea of a summary, graded 5-colors front-of-pack label to inform consumers about the nutritional quality of foods, it was immediately a general outcry from powerful economic operators. Yet with its color-coded format (from green to red) associated to letters (from A to E) and its extremely solid scientific background, the Nutri-Score is a simple and easily understandable tool, responding to the demand of consumer associations for clearer nutritional information. During four years, almost everything was done by powerful lobbies to prevent the implementation of this public health measure. But different actors of the society mobilized to convince and demonstrate the interest of this tool: scientists, health professionals, but also consumer associations, who fostered citizens’ actions, petitions and multiple communications in the media… This strong mobilization has strengthened the political will of the Ministry of Health and led to the signing on October 31st, 2017 of an inter-ministerial decree formalizing the Nutri-Score adoption as the official French front-of-pack label. On this occasion, three industrialists (Fleury Michon, Danone and Mc Cain) and three retailers (Intermarché, Auchan and Leclerc) were the first companies to pledge for the Nutri-Score. Under societal pressure, some companies have followed: 33 in February 2018, 116 in June 2019 and today more than 300 large, small and medium-sized agro-food companies officially endorse the Nutri-Score.

But since 2016, the battle has expanded outside of the French hexagon. Lobbies opposed to the Nutri-Score mobilized, this time, at the European level. Six large food multinationals (Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestlé, Mars, Unilever, Mondelez) joined their forces in March 2017 (in what was called the Big6) to propose their common alternative to the Nutri-Score, namely the Evolved Nutrition Label, which was unsurprisingly advantageous for their products and aimed at marginalizing the Nutri-Score and prevent its dissemination. But, here again, in Europe, the societal demand was clearly expressed with, among other things, the involvement of the European Bureau of Consumer Associations (BEUC) and NGOs such as FoodWatch which supported the Nutri-Score and denounced the attempts to destabilize it. Faced with the results of scientific works and consumer rejection, the Big6 finally backed down in November 2018. But despite the suspension of their logo, none of the Big6 companies or any of other large companies (Kellogg’s, Ferrero, Kraft, etc.) announced at that point their uptake of the Nutri-Score…

However, societal pressure continued, relayed by the media which placed the issue of the Nutri-Score in the public debate. This strong mobilization payed off and brought down some of the major groups that, in the Big 6 or elsewhere, had strongly opposed the Nutri-Score. First, this was the case for Nestlé (in November 2019), then for Kellogg’s (in January 2020) and most recently for Pepsico (in February 2020): all declared their adoption of the Nutri-Score. All these companies have highlighted in their public communication the fact that it is no longer possible to ignore the demand of consumers who strongly ask for the adoption of the Nutri-Score. We can only be delighted that these large multinationals have finally agreed to play the game of nutritional transparency and adhere to the Nutri-Score. This is good news considering the number of brands they represent and the type of products they sell, which are not always the most favorably placed on the Nutri-Score scale. The fact that Nestlé displays the Nutri-Score on all its products including ice creams, confectionery, chocolate bars, chocolate or dessert creams, and that Pepsico registers its Benenuts (aperitive snacks) or Lays (crisps) brands, which will display Nutri-Score D and E on many products, shows that consumer demand, when strongly expressed, can lead companies to agree to transparency, even on products for which, for a long time, they did not want to alert the consumer about their poor nutritional composition.

The history of the Nutri-Score shows that pressure from consumers and civil society can eventually push large multinationals to reverse their positions and embrace a public health measure that they initially rejected. We can only congratulate the companies that have finally agreed to make the move. This reinforces the conviction that societal pressure must continue to be exerted on large multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Ferrero, Mars, Mondelez, Unilever, Kraft, General Mills and others who continue to deny the evidence of science and public health and remain deaf to consumer demand. It is also in the interest of the current petition, launched by European consumer associations (www.pronutriscore.org), to require that the European Commission make the Nutri-Score mandatory in Europe. This is a strong sign of the determination of consumers against manufacturers that still refuse display full nutritional transparency on their products…

For once, and it is quite rare in the field of public health, the clay pot was not broken by the iron pot of lobbies. Even if the victory is not complete, this evolution encourages the consumers and actors involved in the defense of public health to fight together to shift the lines, making societal demand strongly emerge. The Nutri-Score, an encouraging story for future public health battles!

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