3 Dec 2019
Pressure Increases for EU to Adopt Colour-coded Nutrition Food Labels
The European Union is increasingly facing calls to introduce the so-called Nutri-Score label for food packaging. The Nutri-Score label was first introduced in France and sets out a five-letter colour-coded overview of whether the product in question contains too much sugar, salt or unsaturated fats; red indicates a high content of such unhealthy substance while green indicates low levels. Members of the Greens and socialist groups in the European Parliament have voiced their support for the labelling system at a press conference last month, while the German Agricultural Minister announced in September that framework legislation to adopt such labelling on a national level is under way and should come into effect in Germany before the end of 2020. Hong Kong companies may want to note that European food producers have criticised the label as putting at risk the popularity of traditional foods and affecting the industry’s profitability.
On 7 November, the Greens and socialist groups in the European Parliament announced that they supported the Nutri-Score label. Its introduction is also the subject of a European citizens’ initiative. This initiative, however, is still far from obtaining the 1 million signatures required to bring forward a legislative proposal, but it appears to have attracted the attention of EU parliamentarians, who have raised parliamentary questions in relation to the background to this initiative as well as regarding its consistency with existing EU law. The new European Commission is expected to pursue this initiative as part of its own health policy, irrespective of the initiative’s success. Incoming Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, already announced that she endorses EU-wide nutrition labels but said she would await the Commission review on nutrition labelling (which was due to be published last July).
The Nutri-Score could be introduced as a mandatory label on all food products at EU level indicating with a scale of five letters from A to E (each letter represented with a colour ranging from green to red) whether the levels of salt, sugar or unsaturated fats are at healthy levels (green) or too high (red). The scheme aims to allow consumers to judge quickly and easily which products are more or less healthy and thus make healthier choices in buying food. Monique Goyens, director general at the EU office of the European Consumer Organisation, emphasised that the system is easy to understand and builds on familiar colour codes.
The labelling is particularly aimed at encouraging healthier food choices in order to fight obesity and other diet-related diseases which affect broad groups of European society, and to thus lessen the burden on national health systems. Further details of substances contained in food products would also continue to have to be listed on the other nutritional labels already printed on products and the list of ingredients.
The colour-coded labels have already been introduced in France, Spain, Belgium and Portugal as Hong Kong’s foodstuffs exporters may be aware. The food manufacturing conglomerate Nestlé also adopted the nutritional scale for its products but warns that a fragmentation of the European market through differing national labels would be a threat to the free movement of foodstuff throughout the EU. The EU single market, as businesses in Hong Kong and mainland China may be aware, requires that technical requirements (including labelling) do not hinder the free flow of goods across internal EU borders, with exceptions only infrequently allowed. The adoption by France of the Nutri-Score as non-mandatory but as the only officially recognised food nutrition label raised concerns among manufacturers. The European Commission, however, did not object to France introducing the label as a non-mandatory indication of nutritional value, unlike in 2013 when the UK adopted a traffic light system for the same purpose.
Some have raised questions as to whether the introduction of the Nutri-Score would not conflict with environmental policies put forward by the Greens group of the European Parliament. Meat, for example, tends to receive positive labelling on the Nutri-Score system but has a negative impact on the environment. Green party members have commented saying that there is no conflict and that they do not object to eating meat in general but merely to the consumption of too much meat, a mind-set that they claim is increasingly taking hold in consumers’ food choices. At least, it was said, among the different meat options, the Nutri-Score would allow consumers to choose the healthiest option. MEP Benoit Biteau added that, in any case, a close correlation exists between healthy foods and production methods which are more environmentally friendly. He cited the example of omega 3 which is a fatty acid with health benefits. Meat which includes more omega 3 is therefore healthier and meat produced under less intensive, pastoral farming systems contains higher levels of these fatty acids.
Some have suggested that the Nutri-Score could also be amended, even after its initial adoption if the need arises. Michéle Rivasi, another MEP suggested, for instance, that an indication of certain additives could be included once the scientific methods required to provide the evidence are available. She also suggested that a component indicating the product’s environmental impact could be added in future.
Hong Kong traders may wish to note that at the same time, Germany, the EU’s most populous Member State, has announced that it will introduce legislation to officially recognise the Nutri-Score as developed in France, on a national level. Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner announced on 30 September that the label would be officially recognised but would only be applied on a voluntary basis. Her Ministry had requested an independent citizens’ survey in order to determine the demand for such a label as well as the preferred format. With 57% of the 1,600 survey participants favouring the Nutri-Score system based on the French model over the other options presented, Ms. Klöckner said legislation would be adopted with the aim of bringing the first products showing the new labelling on the market before the end of 2020. The Agriculture Minister also promised she would advocate for the adoption of the labels on an EU-wide scale.
While politicians and health officials seem enthusiastic, some producers – especially of many traditional products, including cheese and olive oil – are concerned that their products will lose popularity as a result of the new labels and thus cause significant losses.