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Nutri-Score: even with a sign of quality or origin (PDO, PGI, TGS, Bio, etc.), a fatty, sweet or salty product remains a fatty, sweet or salty product !

Serge Hercberg1,2, Chantal Julia1,2, Mathilde Touvier1, Pilar Galan1
1 Sorbonne Paris Nord University, Inserm U1153, Inrae U1125, Cnam, Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (EREN), Epidemiology and Statistics Research Center – University of Paris (CRESS), Bobigny, France/
2 GHU Paris Seine-Saint-Denis (AP-HP)

Since it was proposed in 2014 by academic researchers specialized in Nutrition and Public Health and independent of the agri-food industry, the front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition label Nutri-Score has been the subject of numerous attacks by many industrial lobbies aiming to prevent its deployment. This 5-colour logo (from dark green/A to dark orange/E) is intended to help consumers to evaluate, at a glance, the nutritional quality of foods at the time of their purchase to guide them towards healthier food choices. It has provoked some forceful reactions from manufacturers reluctant to provide a real transparency on the nutritional value of their products.

For 4 years after the system was initially proposed in 2014, major food lobbies developed all possible strategies to block or, at least, delay its application. They first condemned Nutri-Score on the basis for being, so-called, ‘stigmatizing’, ‘reductionist’, ‘simplistic’, ‘false’, ‘incomplete’, etc. They then tried to propose alternatives to compete with it. They made pressure on the political agenda mobilizing some politicians and especially members of parliament. They denied or questioned for many years the results of scientific studies that demonstrated the effectiveness of Nutri-Score and especially its superiority compared to other existing labels. On the other hand, various societal actors (scientists, health professionals, consumers and patient associations and advocates, etc.) mobilized to remind the interest of the Nutri-Score label as a public health tool and demand its implementation.

Nutri-Score was finally adopted in France in October 2017, on a voluntary basis due to European regulations. It should be remembered that when it was proposed in France by scientists in 2014, absolutely no company was in favour of Nutri-Score. Thanks to the societal pressure and accumulated scientific work, some food industries have finally adopted Nutri-Score: from 0 company in 2014 when it was initially proposed, they were 6 in October 2017 at the time of the signature of the official decree; 30 in February 2018; and they are today more than 600 companies (of which more than 95% are small and medium businesses) that have committed to display Nutri-Score on their products within two year following their commitment, representing an average of 50% of the food supply in France. Despite this rather favorable development, and although a minority of large multinationals (including Nestlé) have finally given in to pressure and adopted Nutri-Score, a majority of major international agri-food groups (Coca-Cola, Mars, Ferrero, Mondelez, Lactalis, Unilever, Kraft,…) and many national brands still strongly oppose it. And although it was officially adopted in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland, these opponents are still very active at the European level to prevent its adoption as a single and mandatory nutrition label within the framework of the Farm to Fork strategy programmed by the European Commission in 2022.

What is new in recent months is that we have seen, alongside the traditional industrial lobbying from large conglomerates, new lobbying actions against Nutri-Score in Italy, Spain and more recently in France, that brings together economic and political actors who had not – or little – manifested themselves until now. The fact that the Nutri-Score may become mandatory at European level may have participated in mobilizing today some agricultural sectors concerned about the nutritional transparency it would provide on their products and some politicians using food patriotism for electoral purpose.

The use of the image of «traditional foods»

As for the agro-food manufacturers who opposed it (and are still opposing it), the motivation of today’s opponents – agricultural production sectors and the organizations that represent them – is in fact dictated by the defense of their specific economic interests. At no time do they express any concern about the health of consumers in their arguments, nor do they take into account the scientific work that led to the development of Nutri-Score and the demonstration of its effectiveness in terms of public health. The mobilization of these production sectors, particularly those of processed meats and cheeses, is solely linked to the fact that they consider Nutri-Score as an economic threat, arguing that their products are not properly classified, or not sufficiently well classified in the system. For this reason they attack Nutri-Score under the pretext that it would «penalize» their products unfairly. We find here the same argument as that of manufacturers of industrial sugary or salty products who refute Nutri-Score because their products are not well classified…

With respect to processed meats and cheeses, it is true that a large proportion of them is classified as D and E. This is not an intentional penalty that would target these foods: the Nutri-Score classification is carried out in a transparent and objective manner on the basis of the available data on the composition of the product. It merely synthesizes the information indicated on the mandatory nutrition declaration on the back-of-pack (which has been demonstrated as being incomprehensible to for the majority of the population), corresponding their high content of saturated fatty acids and salt and their high calorie density. Some cheeses and cold cuts that are less fatty and less salty are classified as C (or B for certain white hams with reduced salt content). Nutri-Score thus fully fulfils its role of providing information on the overall nutritional composition of these products. It clearly informs consumers about the fact that these products can be part of a balanced diet (there is no ban of course!) but provided that they should be consumed in moderate quantities and with a limited frequency. This is the meaning of the classification of Nutri-Score D and E. it is completely consistent with the nutritional recommendations concerning processed meats and cheeses that push to limit their consumption.

Concerning olive oil, producers particularly in Spain and Italy, are arguing that the classification of their product as Nutri-Score C is not adequate considering its healthiness. However, this classification corresponds to the best possible class for an added fat, especially compared to other vegetable oils that are classified Nutri-Score D or E (only canola and nut oils are also classified in C). No oil is classified A or B, because of their 100% fat composition. Its health benefits are recognized at moderate consumtion levels by they should not be consumed ad libitum. The Nutri-Score classification is, in fact, favourable to olive oil, of which scientists recognize its interest. So, its position on the Nutri-Score scale is aligned with the recommendations of public health and the model of the Mediterranean diet that invite consumers to favor olive oil in their choices of purchase of added fat, especially in countries where it is part of the culinary culture, but insisting on the importance of avoiding excess fat in general, whatever they are.

Already, in Spain and Italy, to discredit Nutri-Score, the agricultural sectors, relayed by local politicians take the Mediterranean diet model “hostage” by accusing Nutri-Score to be in contradiction with it, using the argument that it would classify in D or E some traditional foods such as processed meats and cheese, that they consider as “pillars of the Mediterranean Diet”. It is of course totally wrong to consider that Nutri-Score opposes the Mediterranean diet. On the contrary! In fact, the Mediterranean diet is characterized by abundant consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals (especially whole-grain cereals), moderate consumption of fish, limited consumption of dairy products, low consumption of red meat, processed meat and sweet, fatty and salty products and promotes olive oil among the added fats. As such, the Mediterranean diet does not consider cheese or processed meat as food groups to encourage. This is therefore entirely consistent with the classification provided by the Nutri-Score, which ranks more favorably foods or dishes that are low in fat, sugar or salt, high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts and classifies olive oil in the best possible category for added fats.

Opposing Nutri-Score to a traditional dietary model (in this case a model supported by all nutritionists including those who developed Nutri-Score) corresponds typically to a strategy of misinformation. Gradually the agricultural lobbies have broadened their strategy by suggesting that in fact Nutri-Score would penalize, globally, all “traditional foods” and therefore would not be acceptable for those foods considered part of a national or regional culinary heritage.

These arguments have also been taken up by political stakeholders. They play up the image of small farmers with an artisanal production and a local distribution that would be harmed by the implementation of the Nutri-Score. In fact, these artisanal productions are excluded by the European regulation of nutrition labelling and therefore of the Nutri-Score. In turn, no mention is made of the large agri-food groups that produce these traditional foods and probably pull the strings of this lobbying.

In fact, lobbies seek to create confusion by stressing that processed meat and cheese are part of the culinary and gastronomic landscape of a region or a country, as if this single characteristic necessarily provided them with a good nutritional quality!

They highlight that some of these traditional foods are awarded official quality signs: PDO, PGI, TGS, Organic farming, etc. These quality signs guarantee the origin of a food product or the fact that it has been processed and produced in a specific geographical area or produced according to recognized know-how. For labelled organic products, this ensures that the product comes from an organic agricultural model based on banning the use of products from synthetic chemistry (pesticides, fertilizers, weed killers…), no use of GMOs, respect for animal welfare (transport, slaughter conditions, etc.).

All these signs and designations are highly respectable and provide to consumers guarantees for the recognition of virtuous methods of production. The fact that a food product is linked to the terroir, manufactured according to a specific know-how or is organic are elements of interest for the information of consumers and of course, deserve to be supported.

But mind the amalgamation! If these labels refer to the “quality” of products, at no time do they incorporate in their definition the notion of “nutritional” quality as this is not their intended role. It is therefore wrong to suggest that these labels are synonymous of a good nutritional quality. Even with a PDO, PGI or TGS label, or an organic label, processed meats or cheeses rich in saturated fatty acids, salt and calories remain rich in saturated fatty acids, salt and calories. Origin and quality signs do not «vaccinate» the product and do not provide it a good nutritional quality. Being part of the gastronomic heritage has nothing to do with having a good nutritional quality more favorable to health. So, for these foods, like all others, nutritional transparency is necessary. The display of the Nutri-Score must complete the labels reflecting other qualities of the products. The request for exemption of traditional foods, relayed by different organizations of producers and politicians is therefore not acceptable. On the other hand, the display of Nutri-Score on these products is entirely in line with the concept of “consuming less but better”… For the same budget devoted to cheese or processed meats, which consumption must be limited as indicated by Nutri-Score (in terms of frequency and quantity), the other signs of quality make it possible, within these categories, to direct the choices of consumers towards these products.

The political instrumentalization of the Nutri-Score

In addition to the lobbying developed by manufacturers and various agricultural sectors, there is also in some countries, very active lobbying by politicians, certain political parties and various national or regional political structures. In fact, this political lobbying has several dimensions. We find the “traditional” lobbying carried out by the ministers of agriculture in many countries which, by their proximity with the economic actors, often tends to align themselves with the positions of economic sectors. We can see this lobbying today especially in Italy or Spain where the speeches of the Ministers of agriculture take up the positions and arguments of the economic actors. The Italian Minister of Agriculture Stefano Patuanelli  uses the same language elements as Federalimentare, the association representing the Italian food industry (including the powerful Ferrero group) and the agricultural associations Coldiretti and Confagricoltura, important members of COPA-COGECA, the European farmers’ lobby. These arguments include the highlighting of economic and trade issues, such as the «so-called» risks for Italian exports, the problems of competition within the European Union, the defense of traditional Italian products (Prosciutto, Parmesan, Gorgonzola, salamis, etc.) which they consider unfairly attacked by Nutri-Score (while they are not ranked worse than their counterparts produced in other countries) and, of course, the fake news about Mediterranean diet as mentioned above. The defense of «Made in Italy» products is also an argument widely used by populist political parties (like the Lega) and far-right (like the Fratelli d’Italia) which have even been organizing street demonstrations against Nutri-Scores in several Italian cities…. These parties appeal to culinary patriotism, national food pride and the defense of traditional Italian values. And they nourish conspiracy theories on imagined nefarious purposes of Europe, of France, etc. with the implementation of the Nutri-Score.  Obviously, they are based on inaccurate statements and truncated or false examples of the application of Nutri-Score. At no time, in their arguments, do they mention the health of consumers. Facing these arguments, prominent Italian scientists denounced this instrumentalization of the Nutri-Score for political purposes.

This kind of argument is also present in the discourse of some Spanish politicians who also denounce Nutri-Score in a demagogic way (for the same electoral reasons), trying to appear as great defenders of local products and of the economic interests of the regions where they are elected or candidates. The defense of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese or olive oil is again used with obvious instrumentalization by some political parties. Like its counterparts in Italy, the far right party Vox makes the battle against Nutri-Score an element of its political strategy flattering food patriotism and culinary regionalism. Vox is trying to mobilize public opinion highlighting that Nutri-Score would damage the image of quality of the agricultural model and of the agro-food industry of agricultural producing regions. These wrong and demagogic arguments are also relayed by Spanish conservative movements, including the Partido Popular.

In the same vein, in France, where the Nutri-Score has been officially adopted since 2017, we have recently seen some politicians, in the run-up to regional elections, trying to appear as “attorneys” for products from the region where they are candidates and where local production sectors consider (wrongly) that their products are misclassified by Nutri-Score…. They do not hesitate to challenge the Minister of Agriculture to propose to exclude «their» local cheeses (as was requested for Maroilles) from the Nutri-Score system and even exempt from Nutri-Score all products with signs of quality, refusing transparency on the nutritional composition of these products. This is not consistent with the public health viewpoint and this demand is only justified by the defense of financial interests and politicians that want to appear as defenders of local productions.

Proposing alternatives: a strategy used by all lobbies…

For blocking or at least delaying a measure they don’t want, a well-known strategy of lobbies  is to add confusion by proposing alternatives. In the area of nutrition labelling, this tactic has been used for a long time. During the first European discussions in the early 2000s, the fear of a tightening of labelling rules and especially the threat of the adoption of a synthetic front-of-pack nutrition label based on a nutrient profile (a major source of concern for economic actors), manufacturers and retailers and their representatives (Food and Drink Europe) proposed a voluntary labelling model. They adopted their own system even before the opening of the discussions of the Consumer Information Regulation aiming to anticipate a possible regulation that would lead to a system that they did not endorse. In 2005, the industrial lobby in Brussels, Food and Drink Europe (at the time called CIAA) and a large number of its members voluntarily adopted their system called GDA (Guideline Daily Amount) which will become the Reference Intakes in 2014 and which provides information on the caloric and nutrient content of foods (sugars, lipids, saturated fatty acids and salt) presented per serving, associated to their percentage of the daily dietary requirements of a “typical adult person”. This complex system does not allow direct comparisons between products, in particular as it makes the portion – defined by the manufacturers – the reference.  This labelling system is incomprehensible and is rejected by consumer associations. Numerous scientific studies have also shown its uselessness.

In the same way, in March 2017, six large multinational agro-food companies (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé, Mars, Unilever, Mondelez) joined their forces (the “Big6”) to propose their own model of nutritional label, based on portions, the “Evolved Nutrition Label (ENL)”. It indicated the daily quantities and intakes of energy, fats, saturated fatty acids, sugars and salt, providing a colour-coding depending on their amounts. While this may have appeared as a positive step, building on the success of the British Multiple Traffic light system, the subtle change of the criteria for the colour coding from 100g in the MTL to a portion of the product tended to produce more favourable ratings than the original system. Under pressure from consumer associations and thanks to scientific work demonstrating the inefficiency of ENL and even its potential counterproductive effects, the Big6 withdrew its system in November 2018.

More recently, the Italian government proposed its alternative to Nutri-Score: “the Nutrinform battery system”. This front-of-pack nutrition labelling provides monochrome information by nutrient, with principles and graphic representation very close to the GDA/RIs label, set up by manufacturers more than a decade ago. This filiation is fully endorsed by the Italian government in its decree notified to the European Commission. The only difference between the GDAs and the NutrInform battery is that the percentage of the reference intakes is presented in the form of a battery on the model of those used in the load of cellular phones. However, this presentation is rather ambiguous and counter-intuitive, as the nutrient content is to be interpreted in the opposite sense to its usual use (the more the battery is « discharged », the better is the nutritional quality of the food!).

Numerous studies have shown that this kind of system is less efficient than synthetic labels. They are difficult for consumers to understand and interpret and do not allow comparisons to be made between foods. They do not have a positive impact on consumer purchasing behaviour. Although rejected by European consumer associations and public health structures, this label is supported in Italy by lobbies representing both the agri-food industry (Federalimentare) and the agricultural sectors (Coldiretti and Confagricoltura) and by various politicians (including the Minister of Agriculture). Various Spanish lobbies, including politicians and agricultural organizations, also support this system …

In conclusion, despite the very comprehensive scientific data demonstrating its interest and effectiveness as well as the strong demand of consumer associations and although it is officially adopted by several European countries, and set up by a number of manufacturers, lobbies continue to fight oppose Nutri-Score. However, in addition to historic opposition from some firms, new lobbies have emerged, in particular some agricultural sectors that also defend commercial interests, and some politicians wishing to position themselves as defenders of local economic interests to attract an electorate sensitive to the defense of regional values. The lobbying strategies are always the same: casting doubt on Nutri-Score through false statements, maintaining confusion, denying the scientific data, proposing alternatives to their advantage…. The will of all these lobbies is to block the decision-making process for the establishment of a harmonized and mandatory nutrition label across Europe and especially to prevent Nutri-Score from becoming the chosen model. Face to this situation, 400 European scientists and 30 associations representing hundreds of experts decided to mobilize to remind that only scientific data should guide policy decisions in the field of public health; and that the choice of an effective nutrition label for Europe must meet only this requirement, and should not be dictated by the interests of certain economic actors or the member states defending them. Given that Nutri-Score is the only nutrition label in Europe to have been the subject of numerous scientific studies (more than 50 published in international peer-reviewed scientific journals) demonstrating its effectiveness, its relevance and usefulness for consumers and public health, as well as its better performance compared to other existing or those supported logos, they call for the implementation of Nutri-Score in Europe. Once again it is the fight of public health against economic interests…