Nutri-Score setback as Italian Competition Authority deems label as potentially misleading to consumers

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Stadtratte
Image: Getty/Stadtratte

Related tags nutri-score

Further doubts have been raised about whether Nutri-Score will be rolled out across the whole EU after the Italian Competition Authority ruled the front-of-pack label gives a false impression about the healthiness of a product, and may even prompt consumers to eat unhealthy amounts of certain foods.

Late last year the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) announced an investigation into five companies using Nutri-Score. Included in the enquiry were the French online retailers Regime Dukan and Diet Lab. It has now ruled that the Nutri-Score label “appears to constitute a violation of articles 20, 21, lett. b), and 22 of the Consumer Code, as contrary to professional diligence and capable of misleading the average consumer with regard to the identity of the food business operator under whose name or company name the Dukan brand products are marketed”​.

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 AGCM launched the case over fears that food and beverage with the Nutri-Score label 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.”

Its latest statement continued “the Nutri-Score evaluation appears to be based on statistical elements that lead to qualify if foods in an absolutist way as positive or negative, without taking into account the subjective state of each individual and the multiple variables that affect the person's diet, such as genetic characteristics, general health conditions, age, lifestyle, work activity, as well as interaction of the product with other foods eaten.”

The consumer, it said, will therefore be led to believe that “regardless of their dietary needs, the product is certainly preferable over others of the same category, encouraging its consumption (without limits) since it is understood that the green colour has identified a food that certainly does not harm your health”.

It added that in the absence of references to desirable quantities and warnings on specific dietary needs, “the consumer is encouraged to consume this type of product without limits, with the risk of underestimating the potential harmful effects that the intake of significant quantities of a food can determine health.”

By way of example, the AGCM noted that Nutri-Score attributes the green A category to some Dukan brand products such as coconut biscuits, which are classified under the Nova system as ‘ultra-processed’.

The Nutri-Score label, however, directs the consumer to purchase the product, the AGCM noted, in the belief that it is a healthy food. “The lack of clarifying elements in relation to the characteristics and limits of the methodology used does not allow the consumer to use the evaluation expressed in an informed manner,”​ it said.

In addition, in the absence of references to desirable quantities and warnings on specific dietary needs, the consumer is “encouraged to consume this type of product without limits, with the risk of underestimating the potential harmful effects that the intake of significant quantities of a food can determine health”.

The AGCM's position is in lockstep with the position of Italian authorities, explained Luca Bucchini, managing director of Hylobates Consulting, and illustrates Italy's determination to fight Nutri-score.

“Overall, the views are not surprising as they are the standard criticism of Nutri-score,” ​he told FoodNavigator. “It is surprising that the scientific literature is not even examined, or discussed. This is certainly a weakness in Italy's position,”​ he added.

Although the case does not confirm Italy’s determination to fight Nutri-score, it means that any company using Nutri-score in the country “now risk being fined even if the products are from France”,​ Bucchini told us.

Fines are expected against the French companies in question but have yet to be revealed.

The case also follows the rejection of Nutri-score by senators in Romania who have asked for a new food label instead.

“Overall, I see that those opposing Nutri-score are split in two camps,”​ observed Bucchini, “those opposing any change in dietary habits because on the impact on the food industry and on products that cannot be reformulated; and those supporting alternative schemes, such as Nordic countries. I can't see that the camp opposing any FOP scheme will manage to eliminate Nutri-score or the other schemes through the EU; there is too much science and public health needs to support them. So, I am still of the opinion that there will be no unified FOP, with some countries keeping Nutri-score, others keeping their current schemes, and others prohibiting any FOP.”

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