Fears mount for split labelling systems in Europe as Italy launches ‘frontal assault’ on Nutri-Score

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Bihimayer Fotografie
Getty/Bihimayer Fotografie

Related tags: NutriScore, Italy

The Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) has announced an investigation into five companies using the Nutri-Score front-of-pack labelling scheme, raising suggestions different systems may eventually be deployed in different parts of the EU.

The firms in question are Italian companies GS, Carrefour Italia, Pescanova Italia Srl and Valsoia, the French companies Regime Dukan and Diet Lab, British breakfast cereal Weetabix and an unnamed German sweet producer.

The AGCM has also launched an investigation against the owner of the French app Yuka, which aims to give a healthy evaluation of food products based largely on the Nutri-Score system.

Nutri-Score classifies food and beverages according to their nutritional profile using a scale of five colours and letters (A is green to represent the best nutritional quality while E is a red to show it’s the lowest).

The label has been officially recommended by health authorities in France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Spain, though individual counties will hold off making Nutri-Score compulsory until the EU, by the end of 2022, announces which mandatory FOP labelling scheme it plans to introduce.

Italian producers of traditional foods such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano​ and olive oil​​ however have long complained that the Nutri-Score algorithm unfairly discriminates against these products. The Italian government has accused Nutri-Score of being at odds with ‘the principles of the Mediterranean diet’. For this reason, Rome has proposed to the Commission another scheme, called NutrInform, based on a “battery-powered” symbol similar to the UK’s traffic lights, which uses columns or batteries to display the percentage of energy, fats, saturated fats, sugars and salt contained in the portion of product in relation to reference daily intake.

Nutri-Score misleads consumers, fears the Italian Competition Authority

According to the AGCM, the fear is that the Nutri-Score label, as well as the scores and judgments provided by the Yuka app , are “mistakenly perceived as absolute assessments on the healthiness of a particular product, regardless of the overall needs of an individual (diet and lifestyle), the quantity and frequency of intake within a varied and balanced diet and in the absence of adequate warnings.”

It complains that Nutri-Score’s the colour / letter scale could favour products classified as green in purchases and disadvantage those classified as yellow / orange / red, “regardless of the actual nutritional intake in a balanced diet​”. It added that “the construction of the alphabetic and chromatic scale of evaluation is carried out using an algorithm that does not allow consumers to understand the scope of the nutritional claim given, since the criteria (the correspondence between the quantities, the categories of nutrients and the relative score), as well as the objectivity of the assessments underlying the release of the Nutri-Score."

AGCM also expressed concern that the that the Nutri-Score calculation is per 100 grams / 100 ml of product, “without taking into account that there are foods that are not usually consumed in quantities of the same order of magnitude”.

In light of this direction of travel from the Italian competition authority, Luca Bucchini, managing director of Hylobates Consulting, believes the investigation will “almost inevitably”​ lead to a negative outcome when the decision is announced in six months.

“This a frontal assault on Nutri-Score with the aim of effectively banning it in Italy,”​ he said. “If Nutri-Score is declared misleading, as it seems likely, any company using it may face fines up to million euros, which would be problematic even for supermarket chains.

“Scientific consumer research shows that consumers prefer Nutri-Score over other FOPNL systems, despite its flaws, and use it for their marketing choices. Therefore, in my view, the apparent aim of the complainants is to have Nutri-Score removed from Italian shelves before consumers get used and attached to it.”

Irreconcilable rifts in Europe?

Bucchini added that the AGCM investigation highlights the perhaps irreconcilable “fundamental disagreement” ​between supporters and opponents of Nutri-Score. “The AGCM does not seem to consider that the main aim of Nutri-Score is to allow comparison between products in the same category, where using 100g as the reference quantity makes sense,”​ he said.

Proponents, he added, backed by the international scientific community, believe that dietary intakes of certain nutrients “should be changed by increasing dietary intake of healthy nutrients and decreasing the intake of the unhealthy ones”.​ Opponents, though “believe that dietary intake of nutrients does not need to change, with no need for reformulation or changes in dietary choices. They claim such changes are not useful for tackling health issues. So the disagreement is about ends, not only means.”

Nutri-Score vs not Nutri-Score markets?

He fears the rift could even lead to dual systems in the for and against countries.

For instance, Czechia’s agricultural ministry has just revealed it’s against Nutri-Score. According to the ministry, Nutri-score is too simplistic because it does not consider the size of portion and general food composition and could also discriminate against “quality and traditional food”.

Bucchini identified that some food businesses are starting to ponder new formulations with less fat, salt and sugars, and more fibre and fruit for the "Nutri-Score markets",​ while retaining fats, salt and sugars in products for markets, such as Italy, which reject Nutriscore. “One possible scenario is that, in a reverse of the dual quality debate, this split is enshrined in EU law as we go forward, opening up diversification opportunities in health-mindful countries and in the indulgent ones,” ​he observed.

Dr. Christofer Eggers, a Frankfurt-based food and drink lawyer, said “it is not realistic that the existing Nutri-Score will be rolled out across the whole EU”​. He added more will be known once the EFSA delivers its scientific opinion on Nutri-Score by March 2022.

“So far, Nutri-Score is implemented by six member states, including France and Germany. However, another group, including Italy and Greece, oppose the Nutri-Score since these states believe that the typical Mediterranean diet based on olive oil is systematically disadvantaged by the system. Others still, including Poland and the EU Commission itself, are very skeptical,”​ he revealed.

“The Commission will be presenting a new system in 2022. Initial indications are that scientists propose to use the UK’s Multiple Traffic Light System as a good compromise between the Nutri-Score and the Italian Nutrinform. The EFSA is working on a report to the Commission. Only after this is published, will the Commission start to discuss in detail. It is expected that there will be an EU-wide front of pack label, but it will not be the existing Nutri-Score.”

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