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An investigation by the newspaper « Le Monde » on anti Nutri-Score lobbying: « The battle over Europe’s nutrition label »

On 26 December 2022, three journalists of the newspaper « Le Monde », Mathilde Gérard, Allan Kaval (correspondent in Rome) and Virginie Malingre (from the European office in Brussels) published a well-documented investigation about the European battle of the Nutri-Score, the strategies of the lobbies and the political pressures of the Italian government.
Text below (english version):

Le Monde, december 26th, 2022

The European Commission was expected to propose a harmonized logo before the end of the year, but the presentation was postponed due to a revolt led by Italy.

A, B, C, D, E: the five letters displayed on food products sold in the European Union (EU) are causing a row in Italy, where they are being accused of discriminating against quality products, destroying millenary traditions and harming the identity of the country.

With no fear of exaggerating, Rome is at the forefront of the battle against the Nutri-Score, a nutritional rating system adopted by its French neighbor and other European countries. The battle, which has been brewing for years, mixes economic interests, lobbying, stifling of the debate and personal threats.

The story began in May 2020, when the European Commission presented its Farm to Fork strategy for healthy and sustainable food which spelled out the principle of a common nutritional label for all EU member states.

The issue is far from anecdotal with 53% of the European population being overweight and 22% suffering from obesity. Besides, European doctors are also witnessing a spike in diet-related chronic diseases.

The Commission was expected to make a legislative proposal before the end of 2022. But facing rebellious member states,it decided to wait on the motive that an impact study must be finalized.

In all countries that have implemented nutritional labeling of their food products – a traffic light system in the United Kingdom, a black warning sign in part of Latin America, the Nutri-Score in France, etc. – industrials have fought vigorously.

The possibility of implementing EU-wide labeling is no exception to the rule but, this time, the search for common ground between the member states has turned into a diplomatic battle.

Until this summer, the Nutri-Score appeared to have a head start on the other logos tested in Europe. The system, which rates from A to E with colors ranging from green to red depending on the composition of products, was adopted by seven European countries.

Consumers are familiar with it and the Nutri-Score received validation from around 100 studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. It was also endorsed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.


Its adoption in France, in 2017, as an official – although not mandatory – labeling system was fiercely opposed. Little by little, however, it managed to become a must-have in the agri-food sector. Over 400 companies, which represent more than half of the sector’s revenue, have committed to displaying it.

The logo has also spread in Europe with its adoption by Benelux countries, Germany, Spain and Switzerland. A political governance committee and an independent scientific council have been created to monitor its fate.

But in recent months, a rebellion against the Nutri-Score in parts of the EU has intensified, with the logo’s fortune going from turn-on to turn-off in some countries. The Italian opposition, which grew more vocal after the change of government this fall, has scored points recently.

Italy’s newly-appointed prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has long been committed to opposing the Nutri-Score. During her legislative campaign, she made frequent statements against the system, calling it « absurd, » « discriminatory » and « detrimental. » Her coalition partner, Matteo Salvini, spoke about « crap » elaborated by « multinationals, » adding it was part of a « secret plan » hatched by Europe against Italy.

In Brussels, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture Francesco Lollobrigida painted an apocalyptic picture of the « Nutri-Score model, » comparing it to « synthetic meat » – such meat is not authorized in Europe – which, if widely adopted, would lead to a « desertification of entire territories. »

‘Under the table’

The anti-labeling language is not new in Italy. But it is now carried by authorities. Officials are prone to denounce defamatory classifications, notably the red D or E attributed to Parma ham, gorgonzola, or Parmigiano Reggiano. As with all fatty and salty charcuterie and cheeses, their grade signifies that they should be consumed moderately.

For Italian politicians, this is going too far. By downgrading monuments of Italian gastronomy, the Nutri-Score is seen attacking the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil – until now rated C and soon to be upgraded to B according to a revised algorithm – is rated lower than a diet soda (B). For its detractors, this is further evidence that the Nutri-Score is dysfunctional.

For public health experts, however, what is really at stake is more important than safeguarding local products. Italy is home to a powerful agribusiness sector, grouped under the umbrella of lobby Federalimentare. It accounts for 8% of the country’s gross domestic product.

The Ferrero Group, one the world’s-biggest chocolate producer and confectionery companies, is a leader in the Italian agri-food industry. According to Dario Dongo, a nutrition expert, a former Federalimentare executive and a host of the website, opposing the French system is essential to the sector’s interests, most specifically at Ferrero.

Since the first debates on labeling in France started, the Italian giant has been opposing the Nutri-Score and refused to apply the logo on its products, including on its iconic Nutella hazelnut cocoa spread. Contacted by Le Monde, Ferrero said that it was « in favor of harmonized labeling on food » on the condition that it meets « a key principle: to properly take into account the role of portions for a balanced diet. »

Such a position amounts to discrediting the Nutri-Score which assesses the effect of all products on the base of 100 grams or 100 milliliters. The notion of quantity is subject to interpretation and can vary depending on the individual.

« Under the cover of protecting the Mediterranean diet, Ferrero does its lobbying under the table, » said Melissa Mialon, a specialist in conflicts of interest in public health at Trinity College Dublin. Ms. Mialon followed the implementation of nutritional logos in South America closely. « Officially, they say they are part of the solution and want to help people eat better, but the reality is that most of their packaging will be negatively impacted by the labeling, » she said.


According to Mr. Dongo, the battle against the Nutri-Score has highlighted and strengthened an alliance of interests between Italian giants of the food industry and defenders of emblematic products « made in Italy, » who are represented by Coldiretti, the main Italian agricultural confederation, in an unexpected convergence between junk food producers and quality products cooperatives.

Although with reservation, this assessment is partially shared by key proponents of Italian culinary craftsmanship such as Slow Food, an international movement born in Italy to defend sustainable and socially fair gastronomy.

« The food sector, the export of « made in Italy » and the gastronomic dimension of tourism form the last Italian economic fort. It is largely incarnated by family, medium-sized producers that the Nutri-Score could affect to great extent, » Slow Food’s Eugenio Mailler, said.

The alliance between small producers and industrial companies on the issue of labeling has been successful because its requests have found resonance in the political scene.

According to Paolo Vineis, a professor of environmental epidemiology at Imperial College London and a member of Italy’s National Institute of Health, national economic interests take precedence over the need for regulation in Italy.

« I understand the argument that food production is one of Italy’s industrial strengths and that it needs protecting, » said Mr. Vineis, who has long been familiar with the crafting of Italian public policy, « but this should not be at the expense of transparency and scientific scrutiny of issues. »


« Italy has made it a question of tradition, of culture, of defending PDOs (protected designation of origin). But this is not the purpose of this basic nutritional labeling, » said Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, an expert on the subject and a member of the European Parliament (Renew).

French epidemiologist Serge Hercberg, former president of the French national nutrition and health program for 16 years, whose team is at the origin of the Nutri-Score, noted that « for years, Italy has blocked any public health measure that it considers contrary to [the interests of] its economic sectors. Companies benefit from efficient spokespeople at political and governmental levels. »

Dissenting voices are finding it difficult to be heard. « Today, the anti-Nutri-Score narrative has become not only generalized but totally hegemonic in Italy and one can no longer publicly oppose it, » said Walter Ricciardi, former president of Italy’s National Institute of Health.

In March 2021, then an advisor to the ministry of health, he triggered a storm of hostile statements and calls for resignation by signing a petition in favor of the Nutri-Score with 300 European colleagues. « I had simply become a traitor to my country, » Mr. Ricciardi said. While he has not changed his mind, Mr. Ricciardi, who is also a university professor, said he had never gone on the record again on the subject. « What’s the point? » he said.

« Many Italian scientists are keeping a low profile, the climate is very toxic, » said Mr. Hercberg. « What is happening in Italy are personal attacks, which we have not seen in other countries. The Italian political discourse not only seeks to discredit but also expose researchers and scientific work, against a backdrop of nationalist propaganda. »

The French epidemiologist has himself been the victim of the scapegoat strategy. In addition to being publicly blamed by Italian politicians, Mr. Hercberg was the subject of a flood of hateful and anti-Semitic messages on social media, to the point of receiving death threats. « What has made the bed for such violence is the official propaganda of populist and far-right movements, » Mr. Hercberg said.

No-Nutri-Score alliance

If part of the anti-Nutri-Score fight happens on social media and by publicizing excesses, opponents to the logo have also conducted lobbying work in Brussels in a more hushed manner, taking part in multiple meetings with institutional bodies, with the financial help of the agri-food sector.

On October 26, an event of the Italian representation to the EU was organized with the support of Federalimentare. On November 10, the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU organized a conference on the subject with Copa-Cogeca, the first European body of agricultural confederations, and industrialists of the sector – Germany subsequently said that none of the countries that have adopted the Nutri-Score was invited.

On November 16, it was a debate in the European Parliament on the Mediterranean diet that provided an opportunity to unfold arguments against the logo. On November 29, MEPs exchanged views on labeling during a debate sponsored by an Italian pro-liberal think-tank, Competere. The next day, a new meeting on the same subject was organized by MEP Paolo De Castro (S&D), with the support of producing regions such as Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, and Piedmont.

Brussels think tanks and lobbying firms are also busy with the issue. One of them, Must & Partners, founded by Italy’s Luciano Stella, created a « No-Nutris-Score Alliance, » claiming to unite the voices of citizens and professionals opposed to the logo with the support of scientists who have signed its « manifesto. »

The « No-Nutri-Score Alliance » website, however, does not provide a list of signatories. In the EU transparency register, it declares that it employs 0.3 full-time equivalents and has no members accredited by European institutions, unlike Must & Partners, which has eight accredited members.

The alliance is nevertheless very active on Twitter and has participated in many institutional events in recent months. On May 30, it attended a meeting organized by the Italian delegation to the EU, posting a photo of its « Proposals for activities to be developed in Brussels », a document presented under its own logo.

In what capacity did the alliance take part in the event and in other institutional meetings? Did it benefit from an introduction by Must & Partners in the high Brussels spheres? Must & Partners, whose customers include Philip Morris, a cryptocurrency company and several tech services companies, says is not involved in the defense of the interests of the food industry. It said that the commitment of its founder against the Nutri-Score is only a personal one. Mr. Stella did not answer questions submitted by Le Monde.

The ‘anti’ strategy paid off

Intrigued by the activities of the « alliance, » a European consumer interests federation, the BEUC – whose acronym originates from its French name Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs – filed a complaint on July 1 with the EU transparency register.

The investigation was closed a week later. The register’s office said that it had received sufficient explanations from those involved. For the BEUC, the closure of the investigation does not dispel concerns.

« The office merely records the information that it is given, without any means of verification, » said BEUC’s Camille Perrin. « We participated in an event in May on labeling, where five representatives of the alliance attended. You don’t do that pro bono. »

Over the months, the « anti » strategy paid off and the questioning about the relevance of the Nutri-Score permeated a number of European capitals. Italy has rallied several member states to its position including Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Latvia, the Czech Republic and even Hungary, who, for its part, advocates above all that nothing be done. In recent months, Spain, although a user of the Nutri-Score, has been increasingly ambiguous on the subject and Rome likes to think that Madrid is now on its side.

France and Germany remain the most committed to the Nutri-Score, but their voices are less audible. The French government continues to plead for a mandatory harmonized logo and downplays the row with Italy. « We are not at war with each other, and we exchange regularly, » the ministry of agriculture said. « Last month, we met the new Italian minister of agriculture in a bilateral [meeting] to discuss the topic. »

‘Too complex a subject to be rushed’

The European Commission, for its part, is still waiting, each of its communications on nutrition labeling being closely scrutinized. At the end of September, the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety’s deputy director Claire Bury said at a conference organized by the website « We are examining all the nutrition labeling systems present on the European continent (…). No algorithm is perfect. » Italy saw this as a sign that its arguments were bearing fruit and that the French position was losing ground.

At the end of November, the Commission’s first Vice President Frans Timmermans, seemed to turn his back on the logo too, stating in an interview with Le Monde: « On the Nutri-Score, we are not there yet. I have trouble understanding what it means. How can a processed product have a better Nutri-Score than a natural product? »

European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides did not reveal her intentions at a council of agriculture ministers on December 12, merely pointing out that the Commission was finalizing its impact study. No one at the Commission, the European Parliament or member states’ embassies is willing to mention a date for its presentation.

« We’ll take our time, it’s too complex a subject to be rushed, » said a commissioner who wished to remain anonymous. There is a risk, however: the European elections of 2024 are looming and the legislative time needed to implement such reform is shrinking. « In order for the texts to move forward, the Council presidencies must also push them, » said the French ministry of agriculture, which expects Sweden, due to take over the presidency of the Council on January 1, to make further progress.

‘A very important first step’

The logo’s opponents are delighted with the change of mood in Brussels. « A few years ago, we were losing the Nutri-Score game 4-0, » Federalimentare president Ivano Vacondio said. Today we are back to a draw, 4-4, but we still have work to do. »

The decision to delay the presentation of the European proposal is seen as « a sign of a credibility crisis of the Nutri-Score, » according to Alessandro Apolito, with Coldiretti. « A system that is too simple is detrimental to consumer information. For us, displaying [the number of] calories is enough. »

The influential FoodDrinkEurope group, which federates the majority of the sector’s industries, pleads for a « legally sound solution. » In its communication, it refers to the Nordic countries’ « green lock » system, a lightly restrictive display that highlights health-promoting nutrients but does not warn about those that should be consumed in moderation.

In the scientific world, there is growing concern that a harmonized logo will not see the light of day in time. « I’m very pessimistic [that] the Commission will be able to come up with a labeling proposal next year, » Mike Rayner, a professor of population health at Oxford University who worked on the traffic-light labeling in the UK.

« Most studies show that color coding works best. I don’t see an alternative to the Nutri-Score, unless it is a system that strongly resembles it. » Mr. Rayner said the issue of labeling went beyond simple consumer information. « It is a political tool that is far from being anecdotal, which can determine which products can be marketed to children, or why not, and introduce differentiated taxation. »

Consumer organizations are vigilant in ensuring that the Commission’s proposal is not buried as a result of delays. « Labeling is a first and very important step to show that public authorities prioritize public health over economic interests, » Ms. Perrin said. « As such, it’s a fairly simple measure to implement, but if it’s not adopted, we can write off any public health policy. »

Translation of an original article published in French on; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.