Ministers of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO), representing the bloc’s 28 member states, adopted conclusions today requesting national governments across the EU draw up national plans to make Europe’s food healthier.
Adopted today, the conclusions set out clear objectives for food improvements that will be rolled out at national level.
"For people's diet to improve, the healthy choice should be the easy choice. To achieve such an objective, a holistic approach is needed: physical and social environments that support and encourage healthy patterns of food consumption as well as objective nutrition information and public-health driven education are key for policies and actions at national and local level," reads the text.
"Food product improvement, by reducing among others the levels of salt, saturated fats, added sugars and energy value, as well as improving the availability of small and/or reduced portion sizes, is an important tool to make the healthy choice easy. In general such reduction should not lead to
an increase in energy value t baseline varies between member states, some of which have already made progress in improving food choices, while cultural differences in preferences and dietary patterns can partly determine the approach taken and pace of salt, fat and sugar reduction.
They want to see progress reports made at least every two years and for benchmarks, best practices and results to be shared.
Reformulation should be done gradually so that consumers do not notice with specific attention paid to foods for infants and children to avoid creating early preferences for foods high in salt and sugar.
Commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis said he was glad to see such strong commitment from the Dutch Presidency on the issue of healthier food, adding that the conclusions adopted today are a further step to increasing awareness and pushing for action at both an EU and national level.
The conclusions also drew the support of industry group FoodDrinkEurope. "We call on the European Commission and the member states to facilitate an environment in which all companies, in particular SMEs, can foster innovation and engage in product formulation, accompanied by educational programmes for consumers on foods, diets and healthy lifestyles. Further work at EU level should however not result in the classification of “good” and “bad” food, as this would not be correct from a nutritional point of view," it said.
Consumer rights organisation BEUC welcomed the conclusions. Its head of food and health, Ilaria Passarani, said the focus on food composition made sense given a single sandwich or bowl of cereal can contain more sugar or salt than the recommended daily amounts, and called on European governments to translate the words into action so that healthy choices could become the easy choice.
“We applaud member states’ commitment to set up national food product improvement plans by the end of next year. BEUC members have repeatedly found that levels of salt, sugar and fat can double or even triple between two seemingly identical products. It is high time to cut the unnecessarily high levels of such ingredients in our food and drinks.”
Susanne Løgstrup, director of the European Heart Network (EHN), said: “We are pleased that the Health Ministers of Europe emphasise that governments have the responsibility to set public health objectives and that in order to be efficient and reach the majority of the population, in particular children and vulnerable groups, more action is needed on reformulating mainstream products that are consumed by the majority of the European population on a daily basis.”
In a statement made to press, Løgstrup also took the opportunity to “remind” the European Commission that strict nutrient profiles for the use of health and nutrition claims are an excellent way to promote food product development.
In April this year the European Parliament voted to scrap nutrient profiles. They had been included in 2006’s Nutrition and Health Claim’s Regulation (NHCR) but never came to fruition.
Improving the quality and healthiness of Europe’s food has been made a priority of the Dutch Presidency. It published a roadmap to develop more concrete actions to ensure healthier food choices earlier this year, which was endorsed by most member states as well as industry players and public health organisations.