French politicians back mandatory labelling of GM feed and pesticide use

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
After a week of debates on the country's Agriculture and Food Bill, French politicians have backed mandatory labelling for GM animal feed and pesticide use on fruit and vegetables but rejected measures to stop marketing unhealthy foods to children.

President Emmanuel Macron’s Food and Agriculture Bill is the product of the Etats Généraux de l’Alimentation (EGA), an extensive consultation process involving agri-food stakeholders and government representatives over the past year.

As part of the bill, French politicians have already voted for a ban on vegetarian products​ using ‘meaty’ names such as steak or sausage, as well as measures intended to end France’s price​ war by limiting price promotions and prohibiting retailers from selling products below the actual purchase price.

For the past week, French politicians have been voting on other proposals of the country’s Agriculture and Food Bill with heated debates that have often continued late into the night.

The measures will now be put before the Senate. 

More detailed food labelling

Ministers voted in favour of more detailed food information to consumers. They backed a proposition that would require by January 2023 additional on-pack information on the conditions in which animals are raised and whether they have been fed genetically modified (GM) animal feed, or the number of pesticide or herbicide applications that have been used on fresh fruit and vegetable products.

Campaign group France Nature Environnement (FNE), which led a petition calling on ministers to support the labelling law, claimed the result as a victory.

According to FNE, a single apple is treated with pesticides an average of 36 times before making it to the consumer.

A 1000-strong survey commissioned by WWF France found that while 70% of French individuals want to change their diet to include environmentally responsible products, the proliferation of on-pack quality labels makes it difficult. These logos and slogans, such as ‘mountain product’ or ‘free from pesticide residues’ are “obscure​”, said FNE.

However, details on how this labelling measure will be applied have not yet been specified. The minister of agriculture, Stéphane Travert indicated he did not object to the basis of the bill in theory but warned of potential difficulties in getting it to pass at an EU level.

France had “a lot of trouble​” in obtaining mandatory labelling for meat and dairy products [which was approved for a two-year trial period] and “legislating now on this subject could weaken our experiment at the European level​”, he said.

No NutriScore

Ministers shied away from making France's official nutrition label, the NutriScore, mandatory on advertising materials, noting that it could cause problems within Europe's single market.

Serge Hercberg, professor of nutrition at the University of Paris 13 and creator of the NutriScore label, which was praised by the World Health Organisation (WHO)​ ​for being “straightforward​” and “consumer-friendly​”, tweeted that the result was “lamentable and a complete contradiction of all the public health recommendations”​  at both a national and international level.

Junk food marketing to kids

Deputies also voted against banning companies from advertising children’s foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).

The law would have restricted or banned advertising messages on radio, audiovisual or electronic channels for HFSS foods aimed at children under 16 years of age.

Anne-Laure Petel from the ruling La République En Marche party called on politicians to vote in favour of the measure. “In France, one child out of every six is overweight​,” she said. “Industry uses over and over again practices aimed at children to influence them​,” she said, citing examples like cartoon characters.

Other politicians, however, called on parents to take greater responsibility for their children’s diet rather than legislating.

Travert underlined the role that the advertising regulator, CSA, could play without the government having to resort to “restrictive​” laws.

According to Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at European consumer rights group BEUC, French policymakers missed "a golden opportunity​" to rein in marketing HFSS food to kids. 

Organic but not vegetarian

Ministers backed a bill that will see 50% of food served in public canteens being either organic, local or produced to certain environmental standards (such as a product’s life cycle cost) by 2022. Organic produce must make up at least 20% of this.

A proposal to introduce vegetarian meals in canteens, however, was rejected. Politicians argued it would be tantamount to “imposing a lifestyle​” on citizens.

Animal welfare

Meanwhile, ministers rejected a proposal to make video surveillance cameras mandatory in abattoirs, instead opting for a softer, voluntary measure to be rolled out over a two-year trial period.

Slaughterhouses can choose to install video cameras in the area where animals are killed and bled, with footage kept for internal quality control and veterinary services only.

Politician Olivier Falorni, who penned the amendment to make cameras obligatory, slammed the voluntary trial period “a grotesque smokescreen​,” in a tweet last night.

Politicians voted in favour of all slaughterhouses nominating one person to be in charge of animal welfare as well as increased protection for members of staff that become whistleblowers.

Penalties for those found to be mistreating animals will be doubled, punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of €15,000.

According to some food law experts, France's retail law on selling below the purchase price could already be breaching EU rules on commercial practices.

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