Nutrition labelling: Who is for and against a harmonised EU-wide approach?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/Highwaystarz-Photography
Pic: GettyImages/Highwaystarz-Photography

Related tags nutri-score Nutrition Nutrition labeling

While some Member States and food makers are backing a harmonised approach to nutrition labelling, others have called for coexistence between regional schemes.

According to the European Commission’s Farm to Fork action plan, a harmonised mandatory front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labelling scheme will be introduced by the end of 2022.

What this nutrition labelling scheme will look like, however, has yet to be revealed.

While the debate heats up over which label – whether it be Nutri-Score, the Traffic Light Scheme, or the Keyhole logo – has characteristics best suited to EU-wide adoption, some stakeholders are digging in their heels.

At a European Food Forum (EFF) event last week, the Swedish National Food Agency told delegates it does not want a harmonised nutrition label at all. Rather, the country is calling for coexistence between regional labelling.

‘A common label better for some countries, but worse for others’

Currently, seven FOP schemes endorsed by the public sector have been approved by Member States. These include Nutri-Score (France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain), the Finnish Heart Symbol, the Slovenian ‘Little Heart’ logo, the Croatian ‘Healthy Living’ logo, the Traffic Light scheme (UK and Ireland), Italy’s NutrInform Battery, and the Keyhole logo (Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania).

The voluntary keyhole logo – developed more than 30 years ago – can be carried by packaged, fresh and restaurant foods that adhere to the scheme’s standards on fat, sugar, salt, fibre and whole grain content. Products that do not follow these standards, which are based on the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations, are not granted the right to carry the logo on-pack.

Veronika Öhrvik, who heads up the Keyhole labelling project at the Swedish National Food Agency, described the logo as ‘very simple’ and ‘very well adapted’ to the region’s food habits and food-based dietary guidelines. “And this is why we want to keep it,” ​she told delegates at the EFF event.

“In Sweden, we see FOP nutrition labelling as one of many important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to improved dietary habits and we greatly acknowledge the aim of the Farm to Fork Strategy to improve health in the EU.”

With unhealthy eating recognised as one of the main risk factors for early-onset, and death from, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the food agency believes it is of ‘utmost importance’ that its consumers have ‘the best guidance’ when choosing foods, she continued.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the main dietary risk in the EU is inadequate consumption of whole grains. In Sweden, Öhrvik explained, consumers have a healthy intake of wholegrains – which she linked to the Keyhole logo.

“Products have been developed over the years according to the criteria for the [Keyhole] logo,” ​said Öhrvik. The criteria stipulate that all products containing cereals should contain whole grains.

“We are concerned that if we can no longer use our logo, food producers in Sweden will not have any incentive to develop products with whole grains.”

Image source: nyckelhal / Swedish National Food Agency

Further, the Keyhole logo lead stressed the scheme enjoys high levels of awareness amongst consumers. More than 95% know the label, making it one of the most trusted logos in the Swedish market, and more than 50% of doctors use the label when prescribing dietary advice.

“If we have to start from scratch with another logo, we are afraid it might take many years until we are back at the same level of integration in society,” ​Öhrvik said.

A single, common label will be better for some countries, but worse for others, she argued. “And that isn’t going to be fair. Consumers must come first. We believe more in regional labels with a common ground…”

Mars, Inc. against ‘fragmentation’

Not all stakeholders at the event shared Öhrvik’s view, however. Some, including confectionery giant Mars, Inc. and Member States Italy and Germany, raised concerns that the coexistence of regional nutrition labelling schemes risks fragmentation in the single market.

The Twix-to-Snickers confectioner, for example, said the Commission’s legislation will ‘avoid complexity, confusion and cost’ for consumers and businesses alike.

Specifically, Mars is advocating for an interpretative, colourful label based on a per 100g measurement. And aligning with the European Commission’s approach, Mars’ VP Public Affairs Europe, David Colman, said the company is supporting EU-wide adoption.

“We do think it needs to be harmonised across the EU,” ​he told delegates at the ‘Nutrition labelling – the way forward’ event.

For a manufacturer the size of Mars, this makes sense from a logistics standpoint. “We have many different factories across this region. Some factories are pretty big and they will produce a product with multiple languages on a label,” ​Colman explained.

“If you want to roll out a nutrition label today on a multipack, you need to be sure that every single one of those Member States will accept it and that it can actually land there…so there is a degree of complexity that we believe EU legislation can harmonise and reduce.”

While Mars does believe coexistence with well-established schemes should be possible, it nonetheless supports harmonisation from a business perspective. “We would like, as a business, to be able to provide information to our customers. We think it’s right for the consumers, it’s right for the businesses that do it, and it’s also the essence of the single market that the EU empowers business – and unlocks their potential to deliver this to consumers across the region.”

The worst-case scenario, Colman concluded, would be a ‘fragmented approach’ across the bloc.

Member States back harmonisation

Two Member States to support a harmonised nutrition label during the event were Germany and Italy.

The latter has been outspoken about its criticism of popular nutrition label Nutri-Score, which it argues discriminates against ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ traditional or single-ingredient foods – such as Parmigiano Reggiano and olive oil – in favour of highly-processed foods.

However, that does not mean to say that it is pro coexistence in the long-term. “We need to reset the debate and start over with a fresh start,” ​said Michele Quaroni, Deputy Permanent Representative, Ambassador to the Committee of Permanent Representatives I (COREPER I).

“If we have a label, it [should] not be a barrier or a burden on the internal market. That is very clear and that is unfortunately what happened through the development of national schemes.

“[Concerning] coexistence, I think we are strongly in favour of simplification. I don’t see how coexistence could make life simpler [or] address the issue of barriers in the internal market.”

nutriscore wwwebmeister (2)
Italy does not support the French-developed Nutri-Score nutrition label / Pic: GettyImages/wwwebmeister

Germany also warned of the consequences of ‘significant fragmentation’ of the EU market, which Dr Lorenz Franken from Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the German EU Council Presidency said is relevant from both the consumer and economic standpoint.

“On the one hand, food products tend to be traded cross border. And also, consumers tend to cross borders. Therefore, harmonisation is our main target.”

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