Published yesterday during a two-day conference hosted by the Dutch EU presidency, the Roadmap for Action on Food Product Improvement is endorsed by member states, public health organisations and food industry operators, and includes commitments to reduce levels of salt, saturated fats and added sugars.
A deadline of 31 December 2020 to meet the agreed targets has been set.
President of industry lobby FoodDrinkEurope, Gilles Morel, welcomed the initiative to put product reformulation high on the EU agenda through public-private partnerships. National efforts should be coordinated at an EU-level whilst also taking into account the local context – national habits, diets and consumer preferences – where possible, he said.
“We [also] welcome the idea that industry initiatives should be supported by nutrition campaigns and special programmes for small & medium sized enterprises that are often less equipped than larger multinationals to initiate reformulation activities,” Morel said.
The roadmap will establish working groups of experts from member states and the EU Platform to establish principles for public-private collaboration and share best practice for criteria on logos, marketing to children and maximum levels of nutrients in foods. An independent scientific check to monitor EU Platform commitments will also be established.
Commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis said a tailor-made plan was needed to implement reformulation targets through the Framework for National Initiatives on Selected Nutrients – such as a 10% reduction in added sugars to processed food by 2020.
But Andriukaitis also told those present that reformulation was not enough to address Europe's obesity problem. “I have in mind - taxation, marketing, advertising, education, reducing accessibility to unhealthy food, and awareness-raising.”
Nutrient profiles and health claim crackdown?
Andriukaitis also said he was open to exploring the idea of nutrient profiles, as well
as working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to meet overall WHO targets.
Both food watchdog organisation, FoodWatch, and European consumer group BEUC are calling for nutrient profiles to prevent sugar- and salt-laden products making health claims because they are also fortified with vitamins. FoodWatch met with Vytenis Andriukaitis in December last year and presented the Commissioner with a sample of such foods to illustrate the kinds of products that can be marketed as healthy.
“These [health claims are] misleading to say the least. And I start to believe that if the food has to tell to consumer how healthy it is, it is maybe not that healthy after all," said the Commissioner.
“I am committed to working towards ensuring that such health claims are properly used. We need to look carefully at the question of nutrient profiles and resolve the current legal uncertainty.”
“The EU has not exactly covered itself with glory"
FoodWatch campaigner Oliver Huizinga, was less optimistic about the impact of voluntary reformulation.
"The Regulation on Health and Nutrition Claims is not yet fully implemented: The setting of nutrient profiles as a precondition for the use of health and nutrition claims is still pending. Even worse: The current 'Fitness Check' of the Regulation questions the necessity of setting nutrient profiles. From our point of view, the Regulation does not meet its objectives, as long as it is allows food business operators to promote unhealthy food with the use of health or nutrition claims," he told FoodNavigator.
“In the obesity crisis, the EU has not exactly covered itself with glory so far. The traffic light failed, nutrient profiles are still pending. The European Union is supposed to solve the major, trans-national challenges. The obesity epidemic is one of these challenges. Therefore, the Dutch presidency should address the bigger picture, rather than focusing on a voluntary prevention measure with very limited impact."
Meanwhile in an open letter consumer group BEUC called for reduction targets to be aligned with WHO recommendations and to be mandatory, measurable and applied across all food categories, and not just a few products.
It cited the examples of one popular French brand that developed a ‘low salt’ variety of biscuits while the salt content in its standard products increased by 20% between 2007 and 2013.