The convention was signed on Monday this week by Belgian food industry group FEVIA as well as business group COMEOS which covers food retailers and distributors and the Minister of Health, Maggie de Block.
Major food service operators such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Lunch Garden have signed up as well as catering company Sodexo and supermarket private label brands.
The convention does not specify what proportion of calorie reduction should come from, say, reformulation, portion control or restrictions in price promotions – this will be left to the companies’ discretion which will allow them to achieve the 5% target in ways that are most suitable to their sector, said spokesperson for the Minister of Health, Els Cleemput.
Instead of serving people a large portion of mashed potato and small amounts of vegetables, for instance, a canteen could increase the portion of vegetables while a fruit yoghurt manufacturer could reformulate to reduce the amount of sugar.
'We were ready to talk about this now'
Although the convention was signed this week, the 5% reduction will actually be measured from 2012 until 2017.
The initiative will be 100% industry-funded, Cleemput told FoodNavigator: “They [industry] don’t need [public funding]. They’ve seen how the market has changed and this evolution started in 2012,” she said. “It’s just that we were ready to talk about it right now.”
A spokesperson for FEVIA said discussions began in 2012 and "really took shape" in 2014. "Our commitment is really to make this a continuous effort, which is why we’ve already committed to a further reduction following the monitoring phase."
After this date, some manufacturers have committed to further reductions. Soft drink manufacturers will aim for a 10% overall reduction in sugar by 2020, and dairy products will aim for 8% overall.
“Members of two organisations – industry and distribution – have committed to keeping the engagement and it will be monitored by themselves and by the government," said Cleemput.
"They will give info on how producers are being changes and we will check the validity of these [claims] – we will do lab analysis to verify it the products have actually changed."
The data will be stored in a database managed by Nubel, a non-profit organisation that is partly funded by industry and the government, which keeps nutrition information of Belgian foods. Lab analyses will be carried out by the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC).
A significant step or hot air?
But not everyone is convinced. Stephanie Bonnewyn, dietitian at Test Achats, Belgium’s consumer watchdog told la Libre Belgique it was simply an attempt to generate media hype, and without an independent organisation to verify the validity of the claims made – such as France’s food quality observatory Oquali – it lacks credibility.
Bonnewyn said the 5% reduction was not enough – “100 g of Nutella provides around 530 kcal [so] taking away 5% or 27 kcal isn’t enormous” - while
another risk is that companies don’t actually reformulate their products but simply give consumers more choice.
“What we don’t want is that instead of [reformulating] industry opts to widen its range by putting more light products on the market. For example, they won’t touch the sugar in the main lemonade brand or the fat content of certain crisps but will create other zero calorie lemonades or popped crisps to be able to say they have globally improved the calorie content of their range.”
But for Roel Dekelver, spokesperson for the Delhaize group, the convention “really is a significant step”.
“It’s not simply marketing, we really feel responsible for the health of our customers” he said. “In terms of long-term strategy, we are trying to offer healthier classic products but also alternative ones with natural sweeteners such as yoghurts with stevia and ice creams with zusto.”