Food industry unites behind Code of Conduct, but fault lines remain for food system transformation

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

European Code of Conduct targets healthier, more sustainable food system / Pic: iStock-Grunfnar
European Code of Conduct targets healthier, more sustainable food system / Pic: iStock-Grunfnar

Related tags Sustainability

The European Commission has launched a Code of Conduct for responsible food business and marketing, with the aim of ‘improving the health of our citizens, our societies and the planet’. But will it deliver on these lofty ambitions?

The European Commission held a ‘high level celebratory event’ to mark the launch of the EU Code of Conduct for responsible food business and marketing this morning.

“The Code is one of the first deliverables of the Farm to Fork Strategy. It could significantly help the transition towards a sustainable food system. And it does not come a day too early,”​ European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides said in her prepared remarks.

This Code is part of the EU's efforts to increase the availability and affordability of healthy and sustainable food options. It shows signatories – 65 large corporations and industry associations so far – are ‘ready to play their part in contributing to transforming the food systems’, according to the document.

Billed by the EC as a ‘game changing solution’, the Code’s purpose is to galvanise food system actors to unite behind a ‘common aspirational path’. “For this Code to be a success, it should demonstrate a contribution to environmental, health and social sustainability of food systems, while ensuring economic sustainability of the European food value chain,”​ the document notes.

It has attracted the backing from a variety of large CPG and retail organisations, from PepsiCo, Nestlé and Coca-Cola to Albert Heijn and Sodexo. It provides a framework for ‘frontrunners’ to set out ‘ambitious commitments’ with ‘measurable outcomes’ on subjects as far-roaming as sugar reduction, animal welfare and emissions.

‘Sustainability needs all hands on deck’

Commissioner Kyriakides was keen to promote the importance of working across the industry to support food system transformation.

“Sustainability needs all hands on deck and we can all collectively do more,​” she insisted. “Working together, all of us – from the agricultural sector, via the food value chain to the final consumer, from the local to the global level – can bring about change for the better.”

Welcoming the launch of the Code, the great and the good of the European food industry lined up to hail what Ahold Delhaize CEO Frans Muller described as ‘one of the first important milestones of the Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy’.

Dirk Jacobs, Director General of FoodDrinkEurope and chair of the Task Force that produced the agreement, stressed it provides a foundation from which further collaborative action can be taken.

There needs to be a joined-up approach between governmental and industry action, he stressed, looking to the development of a circular economy for plastics as case in point.
“We want to achieve full circularity of packaging by 2030… We are not able to do it alone. We are reliant on authorities at a Member State level,”​ he explained, highlighting the need to develop appropriate infrastructure to support industry efforts on plastics.

FoodDrinkEurope is a long-time advocate of harmonisation across the single market and the industry association’s Director General took the opportunity to expound on the benefits of a united approach across the bloc. “We still have a lot of fragmentation within the single market that is forming a barrier for companies’ sustainability efforts.”

Speaking at the digital event, Sodexo CEO Denis Machuel also threw his weight behind a collective approach to tackle food system challenges. “This collaborative process gives us a chance to re-think how we can do this together,”​ noted the CEO of the only foodservice operator to sign up. “No one company – however large – can do this alone.”

However, as with any collaborative effort, the need to secure alignment is not without its implications. As FDE’s Jacobs noted: “[The Code] brings together a lot of different players and we have to compromise here and there.”

When assessing the transformative potential of this collaborative framework it is worth considering what sticking points remain – and whether compromises could ultimately undermine the ‘game changing’ ambitions of the Code’s architects.

Balancing environmental, social and economic objectives

Perhaps the most fundamental compromise represented by the Code is that struck between the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic impacts.

“To secure continued improvement it is important to secure stability and equity between the three pillars of sustainability,”​ stressed Pekka Pesonen, Copa Cogeca’s Secretary General. “European farmers and agricultural cooperatives have highlighted that it is fundamental that this Code promotes the competitiveness [of European agriculture]… while contributing to a more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable food sector.”

Representing the interests of European farmers and their cooperatives, Pesonen questioned the definition of ‘sustainability’ contained within the document. “On sustainability, the current version of the Code does not reflect that there are various degrees of sustainability. It sticks to the principle that food systems are either sustainable or unsustainable,”​ he noted.

Rejecting this polarised characterisation, Pesonen argued European farmers have worked on sustainability for ‘decades’ “We do not recognise sufficiently the efforts made by European primary processors to produce high quality food in a sustainable way. By definition, European farmers are already sustainable.”

Pesonen suggested he would like to see the Code of Conduct include a greater focus on ethical business practices. The 2019 Unfair Trading Practices directive fails to address ethical behaviour in business-to-business relations. This, he said, should be a ‘central aspect’ of the new Code.

Promoting a healthier food environment  

Alongside the environmental agenda and supply chain relationships, signatories of the Code have also made pledges linked to improved nutritional outcomes. These include multiple voluntary commitments around the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children. 

However, how healthy choices can be promoted and communicated emerged as another point of contention this morning, with diverse responses to the Nutri-Score scheme that has gained favour across much of Europe. 

Pesonen believes that Nutri-Score is not an effective tool for consumer communication. "Nutri-Score is an oversimplification of the standards we should follow in our consumer relations. It doesn't address the diverse nature, and character, and cultural heritage of the European agrifood chain... It cannot stand as a baseline for consumer information."

Ahold Delhaize's Muller disagreed, suggesting that it is a partial answer to the challenge of tilting the food environment towards healthier choices. As part of its commitments under the Code, the retailer has set a target that 52% of its own label sales will be healthy by 2025. He described Nutri-Score as a 'pragmatic and workable system that helps customers make healthier choices'. 

For Wouter Vermeulen, Coca-Cola's Public Policy Director, understanding tensions within the supply chain – from the impact that reduced pesticide use would have on farmers to the adoption of FOP nutritional labelling – and the compromises and trade-offs that are necessary is one of the upshots of this collaborative approach, with the EC acting as a convener for the discussion.

The opportunity here is the Code of Conduct allows us to step outside of a single issue approach. To identify opportunities or co-benefits… [and] where there are trade-offs and conflicts,”​ he told FoodNavigator. “The real work is only starting now.”

A code for industry, by industry? 

Milka Sokolović, Director General of the European Health Alliance, spoke today on behalf of all the civil society organisations that contributed to the development of the code, including European consumer organisation EUFIC and environmental advocates WWF. She suggested that while civil society supports ‘an ambitious agenda’ that ‘allows winder business buy-in’ there are a number of areas that remain concerning and ultimately characterised the Code as a mixed bag.

For representatives of Europe’s civil society, voluntary approaches simply aren’t stringent enough. “In order to enable an effective and equitable transformation towards sustainable and healthy food systems, regulatory measures that set out common goals for all should be the main drivers of change,”​ Sokolović insisted.

Voluntary initiatives like the Code can he ‘helpful’ but they must not be relied on as alternatives to binding measures.

Interestingly, Coca-Cola’s Vermeulen also stressed the need for policy level leadership to support systems transformation, suggesting that the company backs regulation alongside voluntary efforts. “It’s not either or, it’s a smart mix. It helps promote a level playing field.”

However, the Coca-Cola policy lead noted, in the context of 2030 objectives, industry does not necessarily have the luxury of waiting for policy levers to be pulled. “We all know legislation might take time to come through at an EU level.”

Sokolović revealed a number of areas that NGOs want to go further and faster on. “We wish the Code was more explicit about the need to switch to plant-based diets with less but better animal products and we wish it tackled the issues of affordability of healthy and sustainable foods.

“We see this as a code for industry and by industry.”

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